Mar 23, 2022

No-code platforms: When should you switch to a custom-built solution?
Image source: Storyset

Low-code and no-code platforms are transforming software development. What started as a way to help developers work faster and automate repetitive tasks is now disrupting the tech industry and promising to democratize innovation.

The hype surrounding low-code and no-code platforms has spiked interest from startups and large companies seeking to innovate, streamline their development processes and cut costs and time-to-market.

And, of course, we get a lot of questions about them here at Torii.

Clients often ask why they should invest in a custom-built platform when they can build for less — and much faster — on a no-code platform. And we get where they’re coming from. No-code and low-code platforms can be fantastic alternatives for building apps and websites. But the limitations they come with mean these platforms are not the one-size-fits-all solutions that most people believe they are.

Low-code and no-code tools are a fast and easy way to materialize ideas and get over technical constraints

Sometimes, you just need to throw something together fast — either to test it out or because there’s an urgent need for it. In these situations, low-code and no-code platforms present an excellent alternative to developing an MVP or even a full-scale solution without the need to assemble a development team.

For those without the technical skills to code or the budget to hire someone to do it for them, low-code and no-code platforms have become a ticket into opportunities that had, until very recently, been out of their reach. Entrepreneurs across all industries can now bring ideas from inception to launch in a matter of weeks — sometimes even days — without the need to write a single line of code or hire developers.

Once it’s time to scale, low-code and no-code platforms’ limited capabilities can hold you back

Depending on your needs and goals, an app or website developed and hosted on a low-code or no-code platform may be all you need. After all, there are plenty of highly successful businesses running entirely on these platforms.

But, in our experience, once a business hits a certain threshold and is looking to scale, being tied to a low-code or no-code platform can present some serious limitations. That was the problem that Darkstore, a same-day delivery service built on Shopify, was experiencing when they approached us for help.

The company was seeking to invest freshly-raised capital on a custom-built platform that would enable them to launch FastAF, a standalone 2-hour delivery service for premium products.

Up until then, their Shopify website had served their needs well. It helped them launch their business and lay the groundwork for their new venture. But, as they sought to scale, being tied to Shopify was holding them back.

Using Shopify’s platform meant that Darkstore had limited control over its store and its customer journey. User experience was suffering too: limited sorting and filtering options made it hard for users to find and view products. None of this would be attractive in FastAF, which targeted an upscale and design-conscious audience.

Plus, operating on Shopify was getting expensive. In addition to the subscription price, Shopify charges merchants a commission on every sale. And integrating third-party apps for value-adding features such as live chats adds to those costs.

Torii Studio took care of FastAF’s internal fulfillment system with a desktop dashboard and mobile application for warehouse personnel. Our solution provided their teams with a suite of custom features that were previously not available to them on Shopify. They could now manage inventory more efficiently, supervise order and service centers and make real-time inventory updates with an easy drag-and-drop feature.

Using this custom-built solution, Darkstore launched FastAF in Los Angeles in late 2020 and grew from one warehouse to five in less than one year. Since then, FastAF has expanded to New York and San Francisco and closed its Series A funding in December 2021 with a valuation of $200 million.

When to make the leap to a custom-developed solution

So, how do you know when it’s time to pivot to a custom-built solution? Here are a few pointers:

  • You’re looking to scale — Plug-and-play solutions are great for starting out or for businesses that plan to remain small, but they can make it difficult to grow past a certain point. If you’re looking to increase your size, capacity or revenue, a custom-built solution can provide your business with the strong, scalable foundation it needs to grow.
  • You want to cut costs — Fees and commissions can quickly add up and eat into your profits. Though it requires an upfront investment, many businesses find that a custom-built platform ends up being more cost-effective in the long run.
  • You want more flexibility — Building on low-code and no-code platforms involves subscribing to their chosen or proprietary technology stack. Depending on the platform, finding developers who can work with those stacks can be challenging — and further increase your costs and limit your capabilities.
  • You want increased security and control — Relinquishing control over servers, security protocols, data storage and the code itself means that you are never 100% sure on how secure or reliable your operation is. Having full control of your product and who has access to it can help minimize common risks associated with low-code and no-code platforms such as shadow IT or exposure of API.
  • You want to stand out with a fantastic user experience — Pre-built templates and themes save time and help ensure consistency when you’re in a rush. But if you’re looking to compete with larger businesses, a fully-customized platform can help solidify your authority and further your brand with a memorable customer experience.

Power your growth and take control with a custom-built solution

Low-code and no-code platforms are a fantastic tool for bootstrapped founders with small budgets and those looking to test the waters on a new idea. Once things start getting serious, a custom-built solution is the way to go for boosting growth, ensuring a more secure operation and furthering your brand.

Looking to build high-performing products that scale? Contact Torii Studio and we’ll make it happen for you.

Read more

Oct 13, 2021

Torii Studio & Total Brain: Setting Up a Design and Development Team for Success
Screenshots of the Resonant Breathing exercise created by Torii Studio for Total Brain’s mental wellness mobile app.

“A great product is not just the result of a thoughtful strategy. It’s also the result of the emotional push coming from the team. From people wanting it to be a success,” says Pablo Sánchez, VP of Design at Total Brain, a neuroscience-based mental wellness platform and one of Torii Studio’s partners.

Product development partnerships can be complicated relationships to navigate. Lack of communication, poor organization, and unclear goals often doom many of them right from the start. Unsuccessful product development partnerships not only yield subpar results; they can often turn into drags or expensive setbacks. Because of this, many firms approach them with tempered expectations and a lot of skepticism.

There are plenty of tools and processes to help in bridging communication and operational gaps between design and development teams. But as with all tools, it’s the people behind them who will ultimately decide how useful they’ll be. And that human factor — that emotional push — is where the key to Torii Studio’s magic is at.

After a year-long collaboration with Total Brain, we sat down with Pablo to chat about the state of our partnership. He had some pretty awesome things to say about us and even compared us to the Rebels in Star Wars. Below are some of the key ingredients that he credits with making our product development partnership a success:

Expertise: Decoding the problem

Total Brain first approached us with a grand vision for what they wanted in their platform. They had an admirable goal, a skilled and committed design and development team, and they were hungry for growth. But they were struggling to bring that vision to life. There was a big disconnect between the design and development team’s original intentions and the final product. Low user engagement, quality and consistency issues, plus low ratings — 2.5 on the App Store and 2.1 on the Play Store — had the team’s grand vision feeling more like a pipe dream.

It was obvious: Total Brain had a great team working with the wrong tools. Their poor experience with those frameworks was leading to communication breakdowns, slowing their time to market, and reflecting badly on the end product.

And we were going to help them fix that with a new way of working and a design system.

When people have the right tools for a job, they produce better results. We believe that UX isn’t just for the end-user; it’s for everyone involved in the process. For us, equipping Total Brain’s team with a well-designed and carefully coded design system counted as UX just as much as designing a beautiful interface did.

Our goal for every one of our partners is to provide them with long-term solutions and set them up for success. And that’s exactly what our process did for Total Brain. Their design and development teams now have the tools to bring their ideas to life quickly and efficiently. They can build better, faster, and more creatively trusting that the end product will meet their expectations.

Speed: Building a design system and component library

Designers and developers are focused on two different things: designers create for the future while engineers build from what has been designed in the past. They speak different languages and follow different processes. Add to that a siloed organization, and you get breaks in communication and a slow, unsynchronized process that leads to disappointing results.

Bridging these gaps between design and engineering teams is crucial for developing successful products. It’s also the key to speeding things up. As Pablo describes it: “I want to accelerate the pace for innovation. But I cannot do this internally. I need to bring in a catalyst and that is where you come in.”

To ensure a quick process, we first rearranged Total Brain’s design and development teams to work side-by-side instead of isolated in silos. We did this by holding twice-weekly meetings with everyone on both teams to review our work and keep our efforts in sync. These meetings helped us close communication gaps, manage time more effectively, and continuously measure our progress against the set deadlines.

Once both sides were working together, we set out to build the design system. Total Brain’s design system and component library — Neuron Next and Synapse — are the force that brings the whole company together. They embody the company’s collective voice and became the cornerstones of our process.

An image showing the color, spacing, button, and type guidelines in Total Brain’s design system.
Total Brain’s component system defines, standardizes, and classifies the platform’s design elements to ensure a cohesive look and a consistent end-to-end experience.

These libraries created common ground for both designers and developers. They raised the bar in terms of quality, gave Total Brain a unified and consistent experience, and sped up the design and development processes. Thanks to the design system, the platform now features an updated look and feel with significant improvements in performance and UI/UX design.

Commitment: Ensuring a successful product development partnership

There’s no point in putting the right tools in the wrong hands. And it’s the hands and brains working behind them that ultimately make or break the process. We introduced Total Brain to a new way of working but their design and development team’s openness to working, listening, and communicating with us was the foundation of our success.

Total Brain’s Component Playground showcasing the source of truth.
Total Brain’s Component Playground showcasing the source of truth. It allows designers to validate UI/UX and developers to find and reuse components.

That same commitment to excellence is what drives the wow factor in the final product. The question: ‘Is there a better way to do this?’ was present throughout the entire process. Going above and beyond what was expected, keeping open communication, and consistently producing quality work raised the bar for everyone. It cultivated trust, creativity, and positivity.

“If you ask our developers about the quality of any component, they would say that they would’ve never imagined anything coming from outside of the in-house team with such a precise and thoughtful approach.”

Innovation: the ultimate Metric

Quantifying the effects of our work for Total Brain requires focusing on different success metrics. Sure, the app’s ratings have jumped from 2.5 in the App Store and 2.1 in the Play store to 4.0 and 4.3 and daily active users have increased 300% since we came on board. But for a company like Total Brain, the ripple effects of our work hit differently and are farther reaching than metrics and numbers on spreadsheets.

Three blue circles showing the changes in metrics that Torii Studio’s work generated for Total Brain. The one on the left shows Google Play ratings increasing to 4.3 from 2.1, the circle on the center shows App Store ratings increase from 2.5 to 4.0, and the circle on the right shows a 300% increase in app engagement.
In the space of six months, Total Brain became a 4-star app and its daily user activity increased over 300%.

The most important metric here is innovation. “You have fueled us to make our dreams come true,” explains Pablo. The design system and development process brought in by Torii Studio has opened the doors to new projects that were not feasible before. The in-house team now has the tools to integrate features like biometrics, video exercises, and animated data visualizations that will elevate the platform’s experience and add value for its users.

This has led to a broader emotional impact on Total Brain as a company: they now have the tools to succeed. Their team can now build the product of their dreams. And we’re very excited to continue helping them on their journey.

Want to give your design and development teams the right tools to succeed? Contact us and we’ll make it happen for you!

Read more

Sep 01, 2021

Torii Studio Named as One of The Top Software, Creative and Design Development Companies in NYC
Image showing Torii Studio’s logo with award badges from Clutch for Top Software Developers, Top Creative Agencies, and Top Design Agencies in New York.

For over two years, Torii Studio has been working under one goal: helping businesses build human-centered experiences. From web and app development to flawless UI/UX design, our team has been delivering first-class digital product design services to our partners since 2020. That relentless dedication to quality has now earned us a spot on Clutch’s platform as one of the Top Creative, Design, and Software Development Companies in New York.

We are beyond proud to be featured on Clutch’s platform as one of the top tech companies in New York. This award cements our position in the industry, and it’s a great nod to our unique process and philosophy.

“This is a fantastic achievement and a credit to all the work we have done so far,” said Torii Studio’s founder, Cristobal Chao. “We would like to thank Clutch and their team for all the effort and hard work that they have put into making this happen.”

Clutch is one of the best ratings and reviews platforms in the B2B industry. They are the go-to resource for companies looking for trustworthy firms to partner up with.

We would like to extend our gratitude to our clients. Their support has been instrumental in our growth and our success. We value their feedback immensely and wanted to take this opportunity to share some of it:

“If you ask our developers about the quality of any component, they would say that they would’ve never imagined anything coming from outside of the in-house team with such a precise and thoughtful approach.”

- Pablo Sanchez / VP / Total Brain

“Working with Torii has been critical to getting our product off the ground. Starting from day 1, Torii helped us put together the right team for our needs, and put in place the right processes to make sure that we were building as efficiently as possible. Would recommend 10/10.”

- Christopher Chang / Co-Founder / Lume Health (YC S20)

“Torii helped us jumpstart our investment in development and design. It was a fundamental bridge between bootstrapped founders with an in-house team.”

- Nimit Jain / CEO / Kovo Credit

You can expect the same amount of passion and dedication from our team moving forward.

Get in touch, and let’s make your ideas into reality!

Read more

Aug 11, 2021

Building digital products for the next billion internet users
An illustration of people from different parts of the world connecting via mobile devices.
Image source: Storyset

By 2019, just over half of the world’s population was connected to the internet. This year, that segment is set to rise to 60%, or 4.72 billion individuals. For the past two decades, most of those users have been concentrated in the developed world, where a combination of disposable income, high quality of life, and good infrastructure made it relatively easy to access the internet. Those countries are now close to reaching saturation levels in connectivity and it is emerging economies’ turn to catch up.

As the populations of places like Germany, the U.S., and France age, the young and eager-to-connect will increasingly be found in countries like India, Nigeria, and Peru. Unlike their economically advantaged counterparts, however, getting that second half of the planet online won’t be as easy.

There are many factors contributing to the connectivity divide between rich countries and emerging economies. Infrastructure, education, and distribution of resources are only one side of the problem. But at Torii Studio, we know that a significant subset of the global population cannot participate on the internet simply because the internet has not been built for them.

The web was built with its first billion or so users in mind. That first wave was dominated by Western individuals with high technological literacy, reliable connections, and state-of-the-art devices. The internet’s future lies in mobile-first individuals from non-Western cultures that struggle with slow connections, unreliable infrastructure, and frills-free devices. This has created a large accessibility gap that is quickly becoming one of the biggest barriers to online participation in emerging economies.

A world map showing the number of people per million in each region that are not connected to the internet.
Most of the world’s offline population is concentrated in regions of Southeast Asia, Africa, and Southern and Central America. Image source: TNW News

Making the web accessible for the next billion internet users

Accessibility is often correlated with optimizing products, places, and experiences for individuals with disabilities like poor vision or hearing impairments. But hardware, software, environments, language, and culture can all present potential obstacles to fully engaging with technology.

“Connectivity issues without accessibility support break the whole user experience,” explains Nithya Sambasivan, a researcher focused on designing for low-income users. Universally accessible experiences are the key to creating a more inclusive web. Bringing the infrastructure of low and middle-income countries up to par with wealthier nations may be out of the hands of designers and developers, but building websites and apps that can operate in those environments is not.

Our Studio recently had the opportunity to build a website for our partners at WellDone — specifically to optimize it for use in rural locations throughout Southeast Asia and Africa. WellDone is a non-profit working to ensure that rural communities have consistent access to clean water by collecting data on the performance and operational status of hand pumps in water wells. Most hand pumps break down within a year of construction, leaving their communities without access to potable water. WellDone’s initiative seeks to address a relatively unknown problem to people in economically advantaged countries, but that regularly impacts the quality of life for millions around the globe.

The company reached out to us for help with renovating the dashboard application that their ground teams use to monitor hand pumps. They needed a fully optimized system that could operate effectively on mobile devices and in rural locations with low connectivity.

Our team had to work around many of the same challenges that designers and developers face when building digital products for the next billion internet users. Below we break down some of the biggest ones:

1. Poor Connectivity

Low connectivity is perhaps the most significant constraint when designing digital products for the next billion internet users. Many parts of the developing world, particularly rural areas, experience slow or intermittent connectivity. According to a report by GSMA, a mobile industry group, 4G coverage reaches just under a third of people living in low-income countries. In fact, a sizable portion of rural areas in those same countries — around 19% — is only covered by slow 2G networks.

There are economic factors at play too. Internet access is expensive for most individuals in these places. Pre-paid plans are still common, users are cautious of their data usage, and people will spend prolonged periods offline until they can afford to pre-pay for access. This all has a significant impact on performance and users’ online experiences. Apps that rely on high speeds or are data-intensive will not perform well in these settings and fall out of favor with frustrated and cost-conscious users. Google, Facebook, and Twitter have all taken note of this and launched lite versions of their platforms to offer users with low connectivity high-quality experiences. These leaner platforms are data-friendly, optimized for smaller screens, and have offline use capabilities.

Torii Studio took a similar approach as these companies by building a lite version of WellDone’s platform. Their website’s previous version had been designed for high-speed internet connections that are not available in the remote locations where they operate. This created performance issues under low connectivity and on mobile devices.

Features would render in batches once all the content had loaded and users would have to wait for extended periods with a blank screen and no indications of progress. Our team built a new mobile-optimized dashboard that progressively renders content and uses placeholders for any information that has not yet loaded. This gives users clear indications of progress and allows critical features to load faster than non-critical content.

2. Lower specification devices

Mobile phones are the primary gateway into the web for most of the developing world. But these devices are far from the sleek smartphones that are commonplace in rich countries. They are old, low-specification gadgets with short battery lives and small memories. Combined with poor connectivity, they result in a constrained experience for their users and a challenge for designers and developers.

Accessibility — especially elements like contrast, text size, and color — matters here. To make apps and websites that are truly accessible for the next billion internet users, we must ensure that a design can render correctly on low-specification devices with old operating systems and small screens. Keeping battery usage and app sizes low helps users that constantly struggle with limited memory space, the need for SD cards, and shorter battery lives.

Since WellDone’s dashboard works as a web-based application, our team focused on accessibility features such as color, contrast, and other improvements in UX to optimize the navigation functionality for users with lower-specification devices. The map feature was one of the areas that saw the most improvements. The original layout was cluttered and made it difficult for WellDone’s operators to understand the information presented. We solved this by adding a clustering feature that led to a cleaner and better-organized layout. This created an accessible and responsive experience that more easily allowed WellDone’s teams to access the information they needed.

3. Design and technological literacy

Individuals living in emerging economies have a very different experience with technology than their economically advantaged counterparts. They’re typically mobile-first and have likely never accessed the internet from a desktop before. Linguistic, educational, and cultural barriers keep a sizable part of the web out of their reach. Over a third of them cite low literacy and lack of digital skills as their primary barrier to using the internet.

Solving these accessibility issues is a lot more complicated than installing cell phone towers, subsidizing connectivity, or electrifying rural regions. These efforts will have to be combined with improvements in education and digital literacy to help the next billion internet users make the most of their online experiences. The good news is that accessible and inclusive product-building can do a lot to bridge that gap in the meantime.

Building for this new wave of web users requires restructuring our approach to design, interactivity, and user experience. Not only do we need to optimize digital experiences for slower connections and lower-specification devices; we also need to adapt our products to suit different cultures, environments, and needs. Understanding these users and including them in the building process is key to meeting their needs and providing them with better, more satisfying online experiences.

Building a better digital future for the next billion internet users

Nearly 85% of the world’s population lives in regions where poor connectivity, slow devices, or a lack of tech literacy represent significant barriers to internet access. And yet, only a small portion of the web has been built with their needs in mind.

Progress has been made as tech companies race to gain market share in emerging economies. But WellDone’s initiative shows that there is still a big need for solutions to critical problems beyond access to streaming or social media. The pandemic has further increased the cost of not being able to access the web and will no doubt hinder some of the progress made during the past decade.

It also makes WellDone’s work — and ours — more urgent than ever before.

At Torii Studio, a big part of our mission involves collaborating with those who are using design and technology to build a better world. Our team is very proud to have equipped WellDone with the right tools to help the communities they serve and expand their services even further. WellDone plans to use this new and improved system to expand its digital presence, collaborate with more government and nonprofit entities, and integrate machine learning into its operations. We hope that they can continue improving people’s quality of life and that their work inspires others to see design and technology as tools for building a better world for all.

Got an idea for an app that will change the world? Contact us and we’ll help you bring it to life!

Read more

Jun 30, 2021

Why inclusive design is a powerful driver of innovation
An abstract representation of design elements on a webpage.

Accessibility issues are some of the most common problems we solve for our clients here at Torii Studio. For 2021 alone, WebAIM, an accessibility consulting firm, found that around 97.4% of home pages featured automatically detectable errors. The number goes up once errors that cannot be detected automatically are factored in.

This is a shame. There are over one billion individuals worldwide living with disabilities. And approximately 10% of the US population experiences either a temporary or permanent disability. Persons with Disabilities (PWD) already face countless challenges in the physical world. These barriers have carried on into digital spaces where they are much easier — and cheaper — to remedy than lack of wheelchair accessibility on public transport, for example.

At Torii, we believe that excluding Persons with Disabilities is not only a loss for businesses; it’s a waste of human potential. There shouldn’t be a need to make a further case for inclusive design than a moral obligation to our fellow humans. But doing the right thing has rarely proven to be a convincing argument to move businesses into taking action. Plus, overlooking the benefits of a more accessible world would minimize Persons with Disabilities’ contributions to science, technology, and society and the enormous potential that they have to continue changing our world for the better.

Accessible products: A missed business opportunity

Creating solutions for underserved needs is the universal formula for entrepreneurship. Yet companies and entrepreneurs are letting billions of dollars in potential business go to waste by ignoring one of the segments with the most underserved needs out there. Few groups stand to gain as much from advances in design and technology as Persons with Disabilities.

Accessibility is often reduced to elements such as contrast or keyboard compatibility. Though these are essential features, they’re only a small part of everything that inclusive design involves. Persons with Disabilities lead full, complex, and productive lives. Technology has enabled them to do things that would’ve been extremely difficult or off-limits a few years ago. They’re traveling, they’ve become beauty influencers, and they are running successful businesses. Few of these spaces, products, and experiences have been designed with them in mind. The potential for business opportunities and generating meaningful change by fixing this is enormous.

And then there’s the pandemic. Our near-instant migration online further exposed the urgent need for accessible digital spaces. Older adults found themselves trying to figure out how to use video conferencing software without the direct help of younger and more technologically literate family members. Visually impaired college students are being held back by textbooks and digital documents that are not compatible with screen readers. And a lot of the nuanced gestures involved in sign language get lost on Zoom calls. There are more individuals with disabilities online than ever before, and the move is likely to be permanent in many cases. Businesses that don’t adapt to their needs stand to lose big.

Inclusive design is innovative design

Looking at inclusive design through a purely ROI-focused lens is a mistake. Numbers just don’t paint the whole story. Tim Cook once famously replied to a shareholder: “When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind, I don’t consider the bloody ROI.” Apple’s decades-long commitment to accessible design has earned it a long list of awards and turned it into a favorite amongst visually impaired communities. It’s become one of the secrets behind their innovative human-centered products and one of the pillars of the company’s reputation. That is not something that can be measured — at least not in the traditional sense, as Tim later explained in an interview.

A woman in a wheelchair browsing the internet.
Image source: Storyset

Persons with Disabilities are seen as many things, but innovative is not usually one of them. However, having to constantly adapt to a world that has not been designed for them has turned Persons with Disabilities into excellent planners and problem solvers. Individuals experiencing temporary or permanent disabilities have made significant contributions to science technology while solving the everyday problems that affect them. Text messaging, email, speech recognition, and touchscreens are some of the advances that we can thank them for. These innovations now make life easier and more convenient for the non-disabled. For many Persons with Disabilities, however, they are what makes living a full and independent life possible.

“When we design for disability first, you often stumble upon solutions that are better than those when we design for the norm.” — Elise Roy

Christina Mallon, a disabled designer, argues that the extreme needs of Persons with Disabilities make them valuable lead users. Solving for the most exceptional cases often reveals pain points, unmet needs, and faults in design and engineering that would otherwise take long to discover and address. It also makes products, places, and experiences better for everyone else. Same as non-disabled individuals have taken advantage of ramp access and automatic doors, they can benefit from improvements to an interface like higher contrast, more intuitive navigation, or improved legibility.

Accessible design is an opportunity to generate meaningfully change

Too often, innovation is linked to quick money when it should be about changing lives. Accessible and inclusive design is one of our best opportunities to use innovation to generate meaningful change. At Torii Studio, we are committed to building products that are accessible to everyone. Along with having an internal accessibility team, we partner with industry-recognized third-party consultancies that evaluate the accessibility compliance of our products. Whenever possible, we engage with users with a range of abilities to ensure usability and accessibility for all.

Persons with Disabilities have made the world better for all of us while creating opportunities for themselves. Technology has empowered them to go farther than ever before but more needs to be done. If these individuals have managed to achieve so much in a world that offers them so little, just imagine the possibilities once we make the right tools available to them.

Want to make your digital products more accessible? We can help with that! Contact us to schedule a website audit.

Read more

May 19, 2021

Why creativity thrives when it’s challenged

In Cuba, locals have a common saying: resolver. It roughly translates to: solve, get by, or make do. Resolver is how Cubans describe solving problems ranging from the everyday to the complex on an island with few resources. It’s how they’ve managed to keep cars built in the 1940s running for nearly eight decades without ever having access to spare parts from the manufacturers. Or how they’ve learned to make electric bikes using motors from water pumps and military tanks. Being physically, politically, and economically isolated from much of the world has given birth to a nation of DIY engineers, designers, and inventors.

Examples like this one fly into the face of our commonly-held assumptions on how innovation and creativity happen. We associate creativity and innovation with abundant resources and opportunities. Silicon Valley’s never-ending flow of venture capital, universities with large budgets, and Tony Stark types with millions to burn on passion projects are some of the examples that come to mind. But look closer, and you’ll see that some of the most incredible feats of human creativity and innovation have come to life under pretty restricted conditions.

Michelangelo worked within stylistic conventions that most artists today would balk at. Stravinsky waxed poetic about how self-imposed constraints set his creativity free. More recently, covid-19 has gotten the entire planet into the spirit of resolver. Teachers have figured out how to continue classes using Zoom. Entire companies have gone remote. And the threat of a rapidly worsening pandemic pushed scientists to develop highly effective vaccines using novel technology in record time.

Creativity thrives when it’s challenged. You can’t learn to think outside of the box if you don’t have one in the first place.

Why you need the box

The human brain is an optimizer. It likes to follow the path of least resistance and find the easiest way to complete tasks. Once it learns to solve a problem without too much effort, it gets complacent and fixed on those limited solutions. This is an excellent tool for survival but not so for creative thinking.

On the other hand, challenges force us to get creative, iterate multiple solutions, and learn to be variable. Constraints promote high variability by making tasks more difficult and forcing us to narrow our focus. They compel us to make do with what we have and see possibilities that we would’ve overlooked in more abundant circumstances.

Cubans have learned to be highly variable. They see possibilities in objects that most people could never envision. “People think beyond the normal capacities of an object and try to surpass the limitations that it imposes on itself,” explains Ernesto Oraza. This mindset marks the difference between seeing a broken washing machine or an old car as treasure troves of raw materials instead of useless trash.

Zipline: Innovating in extreme conditions

Developing devices that can operate cheaply and effectively in extreme conditions has repeatedly pushed the boundaries of what is possible with limited resources in the healthcare sector. Zipline, a drone developer, made leaps in aircraft technology, AI, and navigation systems while trying to help deliver blood and medicines to rural villages in Rwanda using its aircraft.

Finding a solution to a life-or-death situation in a resource-strained environment using novel technology posed some serious challenges. Zipline’s drones would have to perform safe and speedy deliveries of fragile cargo over long distances in Rwanda’s unpredictable weather and mountainous terrain. They would also have to fly close to the ground in rain and wind to airdrop packages without landing. This would keep the aircraft light and reduce risks for humans and equipment. It would also allow Zipline to serve more places without needing trained staff at the drop-off locations to re-launch vehicles.

The engineering team sought out NASA’s input for their drones’ design. They tried to use their weather models to program the automated navigation systems. But neither the designs nor the weather models worked out for what they were trying to do. “Nobody flies near the ground in storms. It’s just not done,” explains Keenan Wyobrek, CTO of the company. It’s considered too dangerous for crewed aircraft and too risky for fragile drones worth millions of dollars. Zipline, however, wouldn’t have the luxury of waiting for the weather to calm down. And neither would the people who needed the life-saving supplies that they were transporting.

This long list of challenges became the source of some of Zipline's drones' most innovative features. Zips, as the company calls them, can fly faster and farther than any other commercially available drone. An automated navigation system combining NASA’s models with Zipline’s own data guides the aircraft through nearly every terrain and weather condition. They’re also cheap and easy to operate in places where fuel and electricity are scarce. Long-lasting rechargeable batteries power each drone for up to 1,500 flights. Launch sites need only an electrical generator to operate and recharge them.

Zips feature a unique design that allows them to fly in multiple weather conditions and airdrop packages containing fragile cargo. Image source: Zipline

Before this, there had never been a compelling reason to optimize drones for sensitive deliveries in first-world nations. Reliable roads, state-of-the-art hospitals, and regular mail service made technology like this redundant. Most of the applications that had been envisioned for commercial drones were limited to airdropping Amazon packages and Chipotle burritos at people’s doorsteps — hardly life-changing feats.

Flirtey, another drone developer, had already experimented with using drones for medical deliveries in 2015. But stringent regulations made the technology expensive and complicated operations for companies trying to innovate in the sector. Covid-19 has changed this. There is now a serious need for quick deliveries of PPE and medicines to rural hospitals. This pushed the FAA to finally give Zipline and similar operators permission to fly in the US in December of 2020. The company can now bring its innovation home and help deliver medicines to rural America at a time when it’s badly needed.

The sweet spot

Some constraints can be highly beneficial to the creative process. Add too many, however, and they’ll stifle it. An inverted U-shaped curve best illustrates this relationship. An absence of limitations is associated with low creativity levels. As obstacles start to appear, individuals get more ingenious at working out how to solve them. However, once the box gets too tight and people don’t have enough resources to break out of it, they give up, and creativity levels dip.

There is a sweet spot where constraints feed our creativity. Source: Open Learn

Cubans have many limitations. But they also have resources that similar nations don’t have. The revolution left them uniquely blessed with a large number of unemployed engineers and other science professionals. These individuals were able to kickstart Cuba’s DIY culture and pass on their technical know-how to others. For all their ingenuity, however, Cubans are severely restricted in the types of devices that they can fashion from the few materials available to them. Building motorized bikes with water pump motors requires fewer resources and technical skills than building an operational aircraft, for example.

Conclusion

Challenges are catalysts for innovation. And there is perhaps no better time to make friends with our constraints than right now. One of the few silver linings to covid-19 has been how it’s boosted innovation. It’s created a moment of social, scientific, and technological experimentation that would’ve not been possible otherwise. People have found ways to live their lives and help each other while socially distancing. Healthcare has been revolutionized. Governments and organizations were pressed to adopt technologies they had been reluctant to integrate for years.

Even Cuba stands to win something from the pandemic. The island nation got to work on developing its own vaccine after it realized it couldn’t afford to purchase foreign ones. They have few resources and plenty of odds against them. But if there’s something that Cubans know well is that innovation thrives within constraints, but it truly shines in times of crisis.

Read more

Mar 26, 2021

How Diversity Makes Us Smarter and More Innovative

Diversity has become the type of buzzword that either elicits eye rolls, heated debates, or uncomfortable silences. But as our world grows larger and we become more connected, it’s turned into the kind of word that’s dangerous to ignore.

We now have decades of research and hard data summarizing the effects of living and working with those who are different from us. And the numbers show that diversity is very much worth the effort. But how exactly is diversity good for us? What is the value behind something so fraught with friction and challenges? And more importantly: are we sacrificing performance in the name of scoring political points?

The hard truth about diversity is that it’s difficult. It creates discomfort, awkward moments, and even more awkward conversations. Things just flow more easily when we are surrounded by others who look, think, and talk like us. Adding others to the mix complicates things. But the reason why diversity is so good for us is precisely because it’s so difficult. Diversity forces us to face friction and discomfort and interact with the unfamiliar. And nothing makes us grow quite as well as challenges do.

Diversity forces us to work harder.

Diversity “is not better or worse — it’s just harder. It’s harder socially, it’s harder cognitively, and it makes us work”, explains Evan Apfelbaum from the MIT Sloan School of Management. We work harder to put our best foot forward when we’re in an environment where we don’t feel comfortable. A study in which one group that identified as Democrat and another who identified as Republican observed that the participants’ level of preparation for a debate varied greatly depending on who they were told they would be debating. Democrats who knew they would be talking to Democrats did not put as much effort into their points as Republicans who knew that they would be debating a Democrat. The prospect of being confronted with a dissenting opinion from someone different motivated subjects to work harder in preparing their defense. They had to be on their toes, consider opposing arguments, and identify the weaknesses in their own.

We feel better when we’re surrounded by people similar to us, but we perform best when we force ourselves to work with those who are different from us. The constraints that conflict, debate, and friction create help us think smarter and more creatively. They force us to look at our ideas with objectivity and a critical eye. Echo chambers, in contrast, breed complacency and a false sense of security. They’re the types of environments in which groupthink leads to stagnation. In a rapidly-changing world, this type of environment is increasingly becoming a liability.

Integrative thinking leads to better solutions.

Asides from making us work harder, the tension that opposing ideas create is a catalyst for integrative thinking. This approach has been proven to be one of the most effective ways to solve complex problems. It involves confronting diverging options and considering the valid points of each side. Instead of choosing one over the rest, you combine all of their positive elements into a hybrid solution that is superior to its parts.

Considering different perspectives helps us understand problems better. The more frames we pool, the more comprehensive our solutions will be. A single person or a homogenous group will be limited in their outlook and therefore in the number and quality of the solutions that they will come up with. Broadening the scope of the ideas that they input into the process will exponentially increase their chances of coming up with better, more innovative answers. And there is no easier way to force a team to think differently than by diversifying its composition.

Stephanie C. Hill learned the value of integrating diverse perspectives to solve complex problems as a young software engineer at Lockheed Martin. She was assigned to lead a team tasked with updating a launch-control unit system for the US navy. Her team of 30 would have to work with very new technology, a tight deadline, and an even stricter budget. It was a difficult task that required a heavy dose of out-of-the-box thinking and creative solutions. Success rested on Stephanie’s ability to harness the collective outlook, experiences, and expertise of those 30 individuals. Every member of the team would need to be engaged and contributing at 100%. She ensured this by creating an atmosphere in which every person felt comfortable asking questions, proposing new ideas, and openly debating others. Her biggest concern was to “allow the best idea in the room to go unexpressed because someone did not feel comfortable enough to express it.”

Stephanie’s team’s strength resided in the fact that they were diverse and that they embraced those differences. Welcoming diverse outlooks allowed them to establish a dialogue where all parties felt that their input was valued. Every idea was equally worthy of consideration and debate. In the face of complex problems, the ability to develop equally complex solutions has become an essential trait in those working to solve them. This requires getting comfortable with conflict and debate and understanding the value that divergent views can add to our own.

Intersecting ideas breed innovation.

Integrating ideas not only leads to better solutions; it also fosters creativity and innovation. Joining seemingly disparate ideas into new ones is the single most important trait of innovative individuals and teams. The more far-fetched the sources that we draw from, the more unique our product will be. It’s how computers and phones became smartphones or how wooden planks and wheels became skateboards.

Ideas don’t come out of thin air. Whether we do it consciously or unconsciously, we steal and borrow quite a bit when we create. Frans Johansson’s book, ‘The Medici Effect,’ is centered around this concept that intersections spark innovation. Diverse sources lead to unconventional connections, he proposes, and it’s in these connections where innovation is born. Every new person, idea, or experience that we come into contact with exponentially increases the number of new connections that we can make. In other words: exposing ourselves to different people, ideas, and experiences is how we become more creative and innovative. It’s no surprise that the world’s top innovation hubs are found in large, diverse cities like New York, London, or San Francisco. It’s also no coincidence that diverse teams present much higher rates of innovation.

Innovation is a numbers game — and diversification is how we win at it. It allows us to control for uncertainty in what is a risky gamble. We use diversification to manage risk in areas where a lot of value is involved such as assets, financial investments, or decisions. Human capital, points out Paolo Gaudiano of the NYU Stern School of Business, has somehow escaped being applied the same approach — despite involving more risk and more value than any other resource. “Any company that figures out how to diversify its human capital to increase performance,” he argues, “ will have a huge competitive advantage.” If we are not willing to bet it all on a single move, why shouldn’t we also be wary of betting it all on a single vision? When innovation is not just a nice thing to have but something we must have, it becomes about survival. And betting that survival on a single outlook is a very risky thing to do.

Conclusion

Diversity is the future. That may sound like a tired catchphrase, but that’s because it’s true. Mixing with others, seeking new experiences, and expanding our horizons have been a constant throughout human history. Our current hypermobile and hyperconnected reality and its ceaseless demand for innovation will only add fuel to that.

Both empirical and anecdotal data have repeatedly confirmed the benefits of diversity for individuals and teams. They are better at solving problems, they make better decisions, and they’re more successful. However, the secret to their strength isn’t solely in their numbers or in the variety of their inputs. The true power behind these teams and individuals lies in inclusion. Inclusive environments allow differences to come out and shine. They help people feel comfortable in their diversity and promote collaboration and debate - just as Stephanie did with her team at Lockheed Martin. Without inclusion, diversity becomes an empty quota that adds no value beyond looking nice on paper, pictures, and company mission statements.

Diversity, especially on the scale that our modern world demands it, is difficult. Never before have so many different individuals from so many different backgrounds come together in the way that they are right now. Learning to see the challenges in these environments as opportunities for progress, innovation, and growth instead of obstacles is the first step in unlocking their extraordinary potential.

Read more

Feb 17, 2021

Beating the Odds at Innovation

How many bad ideas does it take to arrive at a good one? Quite a lot. A lot more than most people think.

Stories on how creativity and innovation happen tend to take on a near-mythical tone. From the way they are told, you would think that ideas simply fall from the sky into the heads of exceptional individuals. The process in which breakthrough ideas come to life is, in reality, a lot more complicated than that. There is no straightforward way to make innovation happen. It involves assuming steep risks, working through lots of uncertainty, and facing plenty of failures. Innovation is truly a numbers game and the guarantees of success are — even in a best-case scenario — just a bit above zero.

The good news is that there are ways to control that risk. Organizations seeking to reduce the uncertainty of betting on innovation have developed a system to beat the odds that is not too different from investing in a variety of stocks to minimize losses or buying multiple lottery tickets to up your chances of winning. It’s a strategy known as the portfolio approach. It provides a way to explore the viability of various pursuits before going all-in on any given one. The idea is that running parallel ventures will increase the chances of success and that spreading resources across different projects will minimize losses in case of failure.

The 70–20–10 rule

Why is Alphabet, a company better-known for Google Search and Android, investing in researching smart homes, artificial intelligence, and self-driving cars? Because it understands that disruptive innovation is the key to securing its future. Exploring all these new opportunities at once improves Alphabet’s odds of succeeding in at least a handful of them and ups its chances of developing innovative products and services.

The company follows a 70–20–10 rule to investing in projects. This corresponds to the level of risk associated with each type of innovation: core, adjacent, and transformational. Core innovation involves making improvements to existing products and services. It’s the easiest type of all three to achieve because it doesn’t require you to rewrite the playbook — just add new pages to it. For Alphabet, this would entail making improvements to its core businesses such as Google Search or Android. Projects adjacent to the company’s main business that carry a medium level of risk get 20% of the resources. These include ventures into e-commerce, digital services, or developing hardware products.

The Ambition Matrix organizes innovation according to the level of risk and the potential rewards that each type entails. Image source: Deloitte

On the far side of that spectrum is transformational innovation. It’s the type of idea with the potential to change the course of a company’s business or even the market. This is a difficult feat to achieve. It requires an environment that nurtures creativity, experimentation, problem-solving, and — more importantly — the opportunity to fail. Alphabet dedicates 10% of its resources to these offshoot programs. It has an entire division dedicated to these seemingly wild endeavors called the Moonshot Factory or “X.” It works as an incubator for new technologies aiming to bring about radical change — not unlike Google Search once did. Google Glass is, by far, one of their better-known projects but not the only one. Newer ventures include projects that steer far from Alphabet’s core businesses, such as Dandelion or Tidal. The first one seeks to become a carbon-free alternative to heating and cooling homes using geothermal energy. Tidal uses AI to explore oceans and promote data-driven sustainable fish farming practices.

Alphabet’s approach has had significant payoffs. “70% of our resources are spent in our core business, and 10% end up in unrelated projects, like energy…People might think we’re wasting money or whatever. But that’s where all our new stuff has come from”, explains Google co-founder Larry Page. The system has worked very well for others too. HBR found that companies that use portfolio approaches tend to outperform their peers. Their research confirmed what Mr. Page stated above: the return ratio on these small investments is huge. Projects aimed at transformational innovation regularly yielded a 70% return on their investment.

Alphabet’s portfolio is made up of a wide range of projects covering fields such as cybersecurity, healthcare, and geothermal energy. Image credit: Business Insider

Fighting uncertainty

Portfolio approaches to innovation are, in short, the organizational equivalent of not putting all of your eggs in one basket. Some of today’s most innovative companies, such as GE or P&G, know that betting it all on a single project is not a good long-term plan. Exploring different possibilities at once keeps them ahead of the curve and gives them plenty of cushion to fall back on in case of failure.

Microsoft credits a big part of its success to Gate’s decision to run parallel projects in its early days. Back in the 1980s, the company found itself facing stiff competition from Apple and IBM. Gates was debating whether pursuing Windows was worth it or if it was better to drop out of the race entirely. Their future was uncertain and banking solely on Windows’ success would be a very risky bet. To control that risk, Gates chose to instead push forward with six different projects — Windows included — all geared towards competing in the PC software market. Bit by bit, the projects that were not viable failed and Windows emerged as the winner.

We have every reason to believe that most of our ideas will not be successful. Most of the time, however, we also have no way of knowing which ones will be the exception. This is why exploring them is a worthwhile pursuit and why having a backup plan matters. When we have a cushion to fall back on, the blow of failure doesn’t necessarily have to knock us out.

Playing the numbers game

Solving problems and reaching specific goals requires us to cycle through lots of experiments and plenty of failures. The more we create and the more possibilities we explore, the better our chances of a positive outcome. One of the most significant benefits of portfolio approaches is creating spaces for experimentation and failure. And that is paramount if you’re looking to push boundaries.

The design process at Skyline, a toy design lab within IDEO, shows how a strategy in which failure and experimentation are encouraged can be applied across a wide range of industries. It also shows how much we underestimate the number of bad ideas needed to produce a single good one. A study found that — to arrive at two or three successful products — the Skyline team had to regularly pool thousands of concepts. Designers would start with about 4,000 ideas for toys. They would then choose around 230 of them to develop into prototypes. Of those 230 prototypes, only 12 managed to get the attention of toy-makers interested in purchasing them. Even fewer of these prototypes would make it into production. Around two or three of the original 4,000 concepts went on to become commercially successful toys. At the end of this long process, roughly 5% of the team’s ideas had been considered good enough to sell, and just 1% made it into the hands of kids. That’s a very steep failure rate, especially when you’re doing it on a near-constant basis.

Creative people know that dumb ideas and failures are part of the game. As Brendan Boyle, one of the team’s members, puts it: “You can’t get any good new ideas without having a lot of dumb, lousy, and crazy ones. Nobody in my business is very good at guessing which are a waste of time and which will be the next Furby”. He understood that you have to dig through a lot of dirt to get to the shiny gems. Innovation and creative work entail embracing that process and the uncertainty that defines it.

Ideas breed more ideas

A culture of exploration and experimentation is good for both producing new ideas and improving existing ones. Ventures can be unsuccessful and yet still deliver solutions that may be useful when applied elsewhere. Loon, another one of Alphabet’s Moonshot projects, is an excellent example of this. It aimed to bring wireless internet connectivity to remote areas using balloons suspended in the atmosphere. Although it recently folded, the technology developed through it has benefited many of Alphabet’s existing projects and even led to new ones.

Loon’s stratospheric balloons functioned as floating antennas to provide wireless connectivity to larger areas than conventional cell phone towers. Image source: Loon

Solving how to program Loon’s balloons to withstand changing weather conditions helped Alphabet further its AI deep-learning technology. Likewise, the technology developed to interconnect the balloons gave way to another program: Taara. This new venture is currently experimenting with using the light beam technology developed at Loon as a wireless alternative to fiber optic cables for internet connectivity. It may have the commercial success that eluded Loon.

Conclusion

Thomas Edison is almost as famous for his astronomical number of failures as he is for his accomplishments. The small number of successes he had, however, went on to change history. Inventions like the lightbulb, the telegraph, or the phonograph are all products of a lifetime of continuous experimentation and plenty of things gone wrong. The pantheon of creative geniuses that he now belongs in is filled with individuals that got very good at dusting off the shortcomings of failure and learning from them. These creators understand that failure is the price of innovation. Any organization or individual hoping to achieve the same must adopt that resiliency ethos.

The basic idea behind the portfolio strategy — to try different things and to do so often — is an approach to business and creativity that both individuals and organizations can benefit from. When paired with the right mindset, it fosters an environment where discovery, experimentation, and innovation can flourish. It teaches us to make friends with failure and to start seeing it as an integral part of the process rather than the end.

Read more

Jan 15, 2021

How to Listen to Your Customers
An illustration showing two characters standing in front of four images: a paper clip, a wrench, a cloud symbol, and an envelope symbol.

‘Listen to your customers’ is one of the most repeated mantras in business. It’s also one of the most challenging and misinterpreted parts of product design and marketing. Depending on who you’re talking to, listening to your customers is either the way to go if you want to be successful or something that will ruin your chances of creating something exceptional.

When discussing innovation, people will get caught up in examples of Silicon Valley unicorns and Wall Street high-performers. Names like Apple, Uber, or Airbnb get thrown around a lot. Quotes from Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, and Mark Cuban start popping up. They all seem to be living proof of the idea that you shouldn’t be listening to your users. That doing it will get you nowhere exciting.

There is no denying that the inside-out strategies of these companies have led them to create some of the most disruptive products in history. It’s how Google Search, the iPhone, and the Model T were born. No amount of customer research would have resulted in an idea like Facebook or Whatsapp. What’s also true is that this type of thinking has led to plenty of failures. For every iPod success story, there are dozens of failed Amazon Fire Phones.

The flip side to this is that companies see products created almost to the exact specifications of their customers also fail. Why is this? It’s paradoxical that something that has been designed to be liked could end up being unsuccessful. Why do companies that listen to their customers get trapped in “Product Death Cycles”? The answer still lies in the listen to your customer part. The failure is not a lack of customer input but in not asking the right questions and then applying their answers in the wrong way.

A graphic showing the product death cycle represented with three circles arranged in a pyramid. The top reads: ‘No one uses our product’; the lower right hand circle reads: ‘Ask customers what features are missing’; and the lower left circle reads: ‘Build the missing features’.
The Product Death Cycle happens when companies confuse pleasing customers with satisfying their needs. Image credit: David Bland.

Users are not product designers

The first thing that people get wrong about listening to their users is believing that they will provide them with breakthrough ideas. This is a big mistake. Listening to your users is about gaining insight into who they are and what they value. It should never be about delegating the task of product design to them. If you don’t already have an idea, don’t expect your users to lead to a great one.

People are bad at explaining what they want and predicting their future behavior. Most are not practiced in the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that innovation requires and have trouble coming up with novel ideas. Your customers are just your customers. They are not designers, engineers, or product managers, and it’s not their job to think like one of them.

In ‘The Lean Product Playbook,’ Dan Olsen explains the difficulties that people have when discussing hypothetical benefits:

“The reality is that customers are much better at giving you feedback in the solution space. If you show them a new product or design, they can tell you what they like and don’t like…Having solution space discussions with customers is much more fruitful than trying to explicitly discuss the problem space with them”.

Steve Jobs was right: people don’t know what they want until you show it to them. It’s difficult for them to guess whether they’ll like a hypothetical solution in the future. They can, however, provide helpful feedback when presented with a product that they can experience first-hand.

Pay attention to what users do, not what they say

Listening to your users is also an opportunity to observe them. Remember: people are bad at predicting whether something will be valuable for them or not. They’ll say that they like something and once the idea has been integrated into a product, realize that it’s of no use to them anymore.

“Don’t base design decisions on what customers say. You have to watch’s people’s behavior to form valid insights that can drive your product to better experience and higher business success.” — Jakob Nielsen

Observing how people interact with your product will also help you ensure that it’s working as planned and help you refine it. It can reveal new problems and pain points that you hadn’t thought about before. Identifying new pain points and then coming up with solutions to them is a much better gamble at creating successful products than entrusting product design to a group of people that know nothing about it. Intuit, Twitter, and Yelp have all pivoted into better products after making adjustments based on observations of user behavior.

Pinterest is another example of a company that found success by taking a close look at how users were interacting with their product. In its first iteration, Pinterest was a mobile app named Tote that allowed people to shop multiple websites from a single platform. It had a unique feature for creating, saving, and sharing lists of products from vendors on the app. A year into its launch, Tote had plenty of users, but few were making purchases. While trying to figure out what the problem was, the app’s creators observed that people were using the “favorites’’ feature to compile collections of items and then share them with friends. They recognized an opportunity in this and flipped Tote into Pinterest: a platform for creating and sharing collections that now has over 440 million active users.

Had Pinterest’s founders gone up to users and asked them what they wanted, they would have probably gotten caught in a product death cycle. People would’ve asked for things like more vendors, coupons, or shipping discounts. This would have done little to improve their sales because that wasn’t why they were low. People weren’t using Tote for purchases because, at the time, that was a very difficult thing to do on mobile devices. The technology for mobile payments was still in its infancy. The founders would’ve gotten stuck trying to make Tote work at a time in which the technology available couldn’t support their product.

Listening to your customers does not mean giving up your creative vision

Another common misconception is that listening to customers means giving up creative vision. Brands centered on being “creative” or “disruptive” are especially wary of integrating customer input into their production process. To them, it means exchanging innovation for lukewarm results that are ‘just right’ but never anything more than that.

This goes back to the idea of seeing customer research as delegating product development to customers. The purpose of talking to your customers is not to ask them what to do but to get a better understanding of what’s valuable to them. You talk to your customers so that you can better inform your problem space, understand who it is that you are working for, and to make sure that you don’t lose touch with their needs.

Innovation alone doesn’t guarantee success. If people do not understand the value you are offering, and you do not understand how to bring that value to them, your ideas will likely wind up as flops. This is why design thinking approaches that emphasize listening to users have proven to be a lifeline for innovative companies. They help them ensure that their ideas will gain enough traction to succeed.

Airbnb was saved from the brink of failure when it started listening to its users. A year into its launch, the company’s team was having problems getting people to book rooms on their platform. Revenue was almost nonexistent, and they were close to going bust. In a bid to figure out what was going on, the team decided to go into their hosts’ homes.

It turned out that their great idea was being held back by the silliest of things: hosts were posting low-quality images of rooms and customers weren’t confident in booking them because they looked sketchy. Airbnb’s hosts weren’t professional hoteliers, photographers, or marketers. They didn’t understand the importance of good-looking, well-lit images for attracting guests. Once the team posted better images on their platform, revenue improved immediately. Talking to their users saved their innovative idea from failing because of bad photos.

A better way to listen to your customers

1. Understand your users’ limitations

  • People are great at telling you where they want to go but not how to get there. Do not rely on them for ideas.
  • Talk to them in the solution space and use the data you gather there to inform your problem space.

2. Ask better questions and observe more

  • Don’t look for product ideas; look for pain points.
  • Ask your customers what they would like to do, not what they want. Inquire about the difficulties they experience when performing a task or achieving a result.
  • Observe them using your product or doing similar tasks to identify pain points and potential opportunities.

3. Apply your findings selectively

  • You don’t have to apply all the feedback that you received and not every pain point is worth addressing.
  • Use what you learned to inform your problem space and make changes only after analyzing whether they will truly improve your product.
  • Don’t stifle your team’s creative direction by using customer feedback to set rigid parameters.

Listening to your users is the best way to create value for them

Listening to your customers does not mean allowing them to control your creative vision. It means using their input to inform your ideas and set a bar for your creative process. Ultimately, it’s about making sure whether people want your ideas and if those ideas will be feasible from a business standpoint.

Design isn’t just creating beautiful things — it’s also about creating value. And the best way to bring value to your customers is by understanding them. Never lose sight of your users and what you are creating for them. If you are not thinking about them, then who are you designing for?

Want to build better user-centered products? Torii Studio can help! Contact us and tell us about your idea.

Read more

Oct 29, 2020

The ROI of UX: Why good UX is good for business
An illustration of a hand holding a pen showing labels reading: ‘Inform’, ‘Persuade’, ‘Usability’, and ‘Delight’.
Illustration credit: @jackdalyco

UX isn’t just a trendy buzzword anymore. It’s the key to creating products that will succeed in today’s market. And, as more brands come to understand the importance of good UX and invest more resources in it, competition is getting fiercer.

People have grown used to friction-free, intuitive experiences that have been tailor-made to make their lives easier. Anything short of life-changing will have a hard time competing out there.

At Torii, we’ve seen both startups and established companies reap huge benefits after shifting their focus to UX. We believe that user-centered approaches are the right choice for any brand trying to make it in today’s ultra-competitive market.

The ROI of UX: Beyond the numbers

Good UX is good for business, and the numbers agree. According to a study by Forrester, every dollar invested in UX brings, on average, 100 in return. This amounts to an ROI of over 9,900%.

But, beyond these estimates, the benefits of an investment in UX will vary from one company to another. For some, it may mean an increase in conversions or even revenue. Others will reap the rewards of good UX in the form of reductions in time-to-market, reduced costs, or decreases in customer complaints.

And, while there are many immediate benefits to investing in UX, the long-term rewards are even more remarkable. Improved customer satisfaction, higher engagement, and loyalty to your brand can be difficult to measure and take longer to yield results. Still, they are instrumental to your bottom line and crucial for sustained growth.

Three key benefits of investing in UX

  1. Save time and resources

The purpose of user experience research isn’t just to find out whether users like or dislike your product. A big part of refining your product is ensuring that it does exactly what you want it to do.

UX research helps product development teams identify and correct problems early on in the development process. It allows them the space to find the right balance between ease of use, functionality, and design. This cuts both time and expenses by reducing the chance of problems arising later on when they’re more difficult and expensive to fix.

An easier way to understand the ROI of UX is through the 1–10–100 rule. You can spend $1 on research and move on into the design phase with a more informed view of what you need; $10 to change a design that was not successful; or $100 to make changes to a product that is already in the development phase.

A graphic titled ‘Investing in UX saves the company money’ showing the $1=$10=$100 rule of investing in UX
Failing to spot and correct problems early can wind up being a costly mistake. Image credit: Projekt202

2. Understand your users better

Good UX leads to happy, satisfied customers that see value in your brand and products. It improves your reputation and strengthens brand loyalty. This is why people are willing to pay a premium for Apple products or why they will gladly brave crowds and long lines for almond butter at Trader Joe’s.

But finding out what people want and how to meet their needs is not as easy as it seems. Companies often get this wrong or ignore it altogether. After all, a poor understanding of the market and target audience is one of the most common reasons for product and company failures.

UX research and prototyping provide valuable insights into how your customers see and use your product. They are a surefire way to find out what they want so you can tailor your products and experiences to meet those needs.

3. Accelerate innovation

While UX and design thinking are two different processes, they share a similar approach of defining problems, performing extensive research, and then coming up with solutions through a combination of iteration and observation. Adopting either approach often means that you will be incorporating — and benefiting from — elements belonging to the other one.

User-centered approaches are what have helped companies like Nike, Spotify, Netflix, and Airbnb develop some of the most successful and innovative products on the market today. They all use a combination of design thinking and UX research to tackle problems creatively and develop innovative solutions to them.

A graphic tilted: ‘Design thinking: A framework for innovation’ showing the continuous loop that characterizes design thinking approaches. It starts with ‘Empathizing’ on the upper left corner, moves down to ‘Define’ in the lower left corner, continues to ‘Test’ in the center of the loop, followed by ‘Ideate’ in the upper right hand corner, and ‘Prototype’ in the lower left corner.
Design thinking approaches are catalysts for innovation. They help production teams look at problems differently and come up with better solutions for them. mage credit: UX Beginner

One of the reasons these companies emphasize UX research is that it’s a safe and low-risk way to test and develop ideas. User tests and prototypes are a great way to explore the feasibility of a product and get a better sense of how your users feel about it.

They reduce the risk of uncertainty by answering questions like: Do we have the resources and technology to develop this idea? Can it compete with similar products or services? What do we have to do or change to make it a success? And, more importantly: Are people interested in this?

The true ROI of UX: A competitive edge

As our lives become more entwined with technology, the quality of our experiences with that technology will continue to increase in importance. Consumers will keep evolving more discerning and favor products developed with their needs in mind. Brands that do not meet those expectations and create competitive user-centered products risk losses and eventual failure.

Prioritizing user experience has significant immediate and long-term benefits. Short term, the ROI of UX can mean more conversions, better numbers, or improved SEO. In the long run, the boost in customer satisfaction, reputation, brand awareness, and loyalty are what will ultimately ensure your brand’s future.

Want to offer your users a better product experience? Contact Torii Studio today and let us know how we can help.

Read more

New York City

105 Duane St,

23rd Floor, SUITE C

New York, NY, 10007

Copyright © 2020-2021 Torii Studio, Inc