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Leveraging Mental Models in UX Design

This post was written by Scott Benson, Designer for Toptal.

 

Whether it’s innovating a new product or optimizing an existing one, UX and UI designers should leverage their product users’ knowledge of familiar products and interfaces. The payoff is smoother interactions, faster adoption rates, and better overall usability.

Users know how your product works and how to use it even before you design it. At least, they should. Designers want to be exciting and original, but users will always approach new products and features based on what they’ve used before (it’s called a “mental model”) and for this reason, designers should work with user expectations.

Mental model definition

Through repeated use, users form mental models of how apps and devices should work.

What Is a Mental Model?

“A mental model is based on belief, not facts: that is, it’s a model of what users know (or think they know) about a system such as your website.” – Nielsen Norman Group

Through the habitual use of the multitude of products that exist today, a user’s brain develops mental models for how products function. These mental models are formed through the regular use of a system (such as a website, app, or even a more tactile user interface as in the car seat example above), and knowledge of how a system works.

Users will transfer expectations they have built around one familiar product to another that appears similar.

These days, it’s not uncommon to see small children who have likely spent more time interacting with touchscreen devices than books or regular televisions try to swipe flat screen TVs (or even books), and being surprised when swiping doesn’t work. Based on their exposure to touchscreen devices, the touchscreen generation have built up the expectation (the mental model) that swiping is how every box-like object should respond.

Even if they are confused by a book, these children probably have no trouble picking up an unfamiliar touchscreen device. This isn’t because they’ve spent time learning to use every individual device but because they got to know a particular one and how it works. Their brain stored a mental model for an operation, and they’re able to successfully apply that to other devices utilizing the same or similar patterns and sequences.

“Individual users each have their own mental models, and different users may construct different models of the same user interface. Further, one of usability’s big dilemmas is the common gap between the designers’ and users’ mental models.” – Jakob Nielsen, Nielsen Norman Group.

A UI that references the mental model definition of a seat

The car seat setting in a Mercedes is a great example of an interaction design that uses a mental model. A car seat shape for controls makes it intuitively easy to understand and operate.

Designers are immersed in design projects and regularly form mental models of their own. They also acquire them from common interaction design patterns utilized by other designers. In a way, this can create a “designer bubble.” It’s easy to fall into the trap of designing something that makes sense to other designers, but which nevertheless may confuse the average user.

People have unique mental models generally formed by education, experience, age, and culture. The average user is not as well-versed in the subtle UI patterns familiar to designers living in the aforementioned “designer bubble.” In order to empathize with users and design for maximum usability, designers need to shrink the gap that exists between the designer and user mental models.

In order to align with users’ existing mental models, the design process should incorporate an understanding of users’ expectations around the way a product is going to work. This is especially important as part of UX research methods used to uncover user needs and pain points.

Misaligned User Mental Models

Misalignment of mental models occurs when there is a discrepancy between a user’s mental model and how a design actually works. This kind of disconnect creates usability problems, as the product doesn’t align with the user’s expectations and existing knowledge. The window for capturing a user’s attention and confidence is small, so misalignment can spell disaster.

For example, most people have used enough eCommerce systems that they have developed expectations for how the experience flows. Surprising users with an unexpected flow could potentially mean a drop in conversions and sales.

Today, most shoppers have an expectation of optional registration based on previous experiences and prefer not to spend their time filling out forms but check out as a guest. According to a survey by Econsultancy, 25% of shoppers abandon their purchases when forced to create an account before going through the checkout process.

In a case study by User Interface Engineering, when a “Register” button was replaced with a “Continue” button in a checkout flow, that minor adjustment created a $300 million boost in revenue. Based on previous experiences, shoppers had a mental model of the process that would follow after clicking the “Register” button—typically a time-consuming registration process that would be necessary before purchasing the product. These negative expectations caused shoppers to abandon their cart.

In another example, Snapchat recently got significant pushback after making major changes to their UI. Users wanted Snapchat to look and operate like the previous version to which they’d grown accustomed, and existing mental models didn’t align with the new release.

The result? Users were confused, made to feel inept, and the change led to a mass exodus from which the company may not recover.

To recap—people have expectations and mental models that are based on previous experiences using a specific product. Unexpected surprises in the UX or UI can lead to confusion and frustration and companies pay the price.

Misaligned mental model

Mental models mismatch in action: The recently redesigned Skype UI confuses users and slows them down due to its use of non-standard dialogs where options don’t look like dialog buttons.

Improving Misaligned Mental Models

Usability testing and other UX research methods help reveal discordance between the designed experience and users’ mental models. Furthermore, gaps between mental models can be improved with interactive tours, careful onboarding, real-time feedback, and/or signifiers to assist in learning new product features and a new UI.

Updates and design changes don’t have to cause chaos for users. Instead of forcing a change, it’s advantageous to give users the opportunity to to update software when they are ready. When a user is able to consciously choose when an interface may change and potentially challenge their existing model of a familiar product, they are more aware of as well as empowered by the new design.

Google Calendar redesign adjusting users' mental models

Google made sweeping changes to the UI and behavior of Google Calendar, a product which had not changed much in many years. By warning and allowing them to opt in over several months, Google empowered its users to decide when to change their mental models of how the product should work.

Google recently overhauled their Google Calendar. The redesign brings some of the most significant design changes in a decade to a product used by millions worldwide. Rather than foisting it upon its users, for whom a drastic change in something so essential could add friction and frustration, they alerted users to the imminent changes. Google allowed users to switch between the old version and the update for several months before finally replacing the old version completely.

Making older versions of a product compatible and available, and allowing users to continue using a familiar version for a limited time, can maintain trust. Allowing and empowering users to decide when to learn the new interface will help them feel as if they’re still in control of the experience.

Mental model UX for user onboarding

Slack uses interactive tours to help new users learn the interface and efficiently improves any contradictory mental models users may have.

Making sweeping, large-scale changes to existing designs that users have become familiar with could violate users’ existing mental models. To minimize the risk of upsetting users, companies may consider letting out minor adjustments through several updates or testing changes with smaller groups.

Facebook has been quite successful in its use of this strategy. “Reactions,” for example, were implemented and tested extensively in specific territories before they were released worldwide. Although minor adjustments happen frequently, Facebook is careful about rolling out major updates that can disrupt users’ mental models. Launching changes through multiple releases can minimize the number of mental models that need to be improved.

Designing on a Foundation of Mental Models

Jakob’s Law of the Internet User Experience states that “users spend most of their time on websites other than yours. Thus, a big part of customers’ mental models of your site will be influenced by information gleaned from other sites.”

Simply put, the goal of UX designers is to create a process that allows users to accomplish their goals quickly and easily. People are creatures of habit, and leveraging user mental models means that users will know how to use a product before they’ve ever used it.

Mental Model Research

It’s common for UX designers to create journey maps and empathy maps, and to use data to help identify user pain points when creating a new product (or improving one). When it comes to mental models, the same UX research methods and processes can be applied to the study of existing competitor or peer products.

When designing a new product, studying an existing system can potentially save designers a lot of time and money since it can eliminate the need to create new prototypes from scratch in order to test new concepts. Watch how users interact with existing designs to find out what they may expect from something similar.

Designers can attempt to improve on solutions that already exist. Additionally, as long as the target demographic is the same, mirroring well-known systems means that little testing has to be done to verify the usability of core functionalities.

Studying systems and mental models

Users of competing and/or related systems can be studied to find out how they are working currently, their current mental models, and what their pain points are.

Mirroring Existing UX

The world’s most popular apps are directly influenced by one another, and they regularly implement designs based on existing mental models. For example, Facebook introduced the interaction pattern of “Likes,” which were then copied by LinkedIn and Instagram.

Twitter introduced hashtags, which were then copied by Facebook and Instagram. Tagging was introduced by Twitter and then copied by Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and others. Instagram introduced stories, and then Facebook implemented those. Snapchat introduced photo filters and manipulation, and then Facebook copied those.

In almost all of these instances, there is very little variation in the adoption of these features. Facebook and Twitter are very competitive, and they’re always looking to capitalize on each other’s success. Facebook is methodical at mirroring a competitor’s product experience, and when a new, successful app emerges, if they’re unable to acquire it, that is exactly what they will do.

Social media UI leveraging mental model UX methodology

Facebook Messenger’s UI mirrors Snapchat, capitalizing on existing mental models. Users of one popular app will have no trouble using and enjoying the other.

Recent statistics show that Facebook has over 2.2 billion monthly active users. The application is so popular that it has influenced many designs today because users have expectations around the paradigms that familiar products like Facebook have established.

For example, due to Facebook’s design influence today, it’s pretty standard to find the notification icon in the top right corner near the login area on many different desktop applications. Status updates, news feeds, and likes are also increasingly common patterns in other applications.

LinkedIn could have designed personal updates, news feeds, or notifications any way they wanted. However, capitalizing on their success, large user base, and users’ existing mental models, they chose to create an experience that directly mirrors Facebook.

Unless there is a specific reason to circumvent what the user has come to expect, referencing familiar patterns allows the designer to focus users on more important, unique features of the product. Even if someone has never used LinkedIn, their knowledge of Facebook will mean that everything is familiar.

Mental Models and Skeuomorphism

Skeuomorphism is a term that is used to describe interface objects that mirror real-world counterparts in how they appear and/or how the user can interact with them. This design concept capitalizes on users’ existing knowledge and mental models of an actual object so they don’t need to learn a new interface.

Many digital UI elements reflect real-world counterparts. This isn’t because designers lack imagination, but they realize a UI element detached from any analogs in the physical world means more effort on the user’s part in order to interpret what they are seeing. Incorporating a switch in a digital UI that looks and acts like a light switch that someone may find in their home dramatically cuts the cognitive load for that user. The visual metaphor is there, and they immediately know what it’s for.

Good UX methodology leveraging mental model UX

Even completely abstracted, the average user will likely know that what they are looking at is a set of switches to turn on and off as desired. Google’s Material Design system uses very flat visual design and iconography but leverages common UI patterns based on physical metaphors to ensure optimal usability.

This principle should be used in moderation, but can be quite effective for usability if applied properly. Skeuomorphism implies that the UI both looks and functions like its real-world counterpart. However, designers need to be careful with this mental model theory, as discrepancies in functionality or appearance can actually detract from a design’s usability.

Skeuomorphic design is common in professional audio production applications. Digital plugins often emulate analog gear, such as compressors, equalizers, and reverb units. In the image below, the digital plugin on the bottom left utilizes skeuomorphic design to emulate the top unit.

The use of skeuomorphic design elements enables users to apply mental models that exist from operating a real-world sound compressor. The image on the bottom right uses a unique design that isn’t based on any existing piece of gear. Because of this, even if they had used a real-world physical counterpart, users would have no foundational knowledge of the interface and would need to spend additional time and effort to learn it.

Skeuomorphic designs reference real-world types of mental models.

Digital audio plugins often emulate analog gear, such as compressors, equalizers, and reverb units. Utilizing skeuomorphic design capitalizes on existing mental models. The bottom left plugin uses skeuomorphic design, while the bottom right plugin does not.

Foundational Creativity and Innovation

In order to maximize usability, it’s important to design on a foundation of mental models. Creating and innovating within existing mental models and standards can bring about new and exciting products that still align with user expectations. Violating those mental models should be done strategically and only when necessary.

For example, most people have developed a mental model of volume sliders. In the example below, the slider on the left represents the mental model that most people would have for a volume slider. The middle slider was designed as a joke, but it illustrates an important point.

The slider completely contradicts mental models and user expectations, as it appears like a vertical slider, but instead, it operates horizontally. The slider on the right is taken from Apple’s iOS. Apple used creativity and innovation to design something new and original, but it still respects the latticework of mental models that forms the shared expectation of how a volume slider operates.

Contradicting common mental models' mindsets

From left to right: Volume slider representing the common mental model, volume slider contradicting the common mental model, and volume slider from Apple’s iOS, utilizing the common mental model in a new design

Final Thoughts

Conducting UX research on established designs will help clarify existing mental models and enable designers to leverage those of their product users’. The findings, in turn, will help designers optimize the usability of any digital product.

Designers who ignore mental models do so at their peril. Leveraging existing mental models as a foundation for creativity and innovation could enable designers to improve existing products as well as help them design exciting new ones.

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Michelle YoungLeveraging Mental Models in UX Design
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Content is NOT DEAD – follow the BUZZ

During our April event, StartupGrind Tel Aviv hosted Shaul Olmert, CEO and founder of Playbuzz. As a platform Playbuzz provides a storytelling platform for publishers and brands ( founded in 2012, raised $66M to date, valued at hundreds of millions of dollars).

Olmert shared his journey, and how Playbuzz became an overnight success, growing from 3,000 users in the first month to over 50M within six months with no advertising budget. They decided to solely use Facebook.

In Olmert’s words, the story of Playbuzz shows how “content is still king!”

Olmert shared with us several tips for entrepreneurs:

Don’t lose faith:

Olmert almost lost faith in himself and went for soul-searching. He had to isolate all the noise and ask himself what he really wanted to do, and what he was good at. This period is what led him to start Playbuzz, that came from the heart.

The big picture:

The main role of the CEO is to remind everyone WHY they are doing what they’re doing – making sure the team preserves the business focus, reminding them what they are trying to achieve. 

Choose what NOT to do:

There is a certain pace in which an organization can grow, so you need to figure out what you are banking on. Each day you have to choose what you are NOT going to do, not only what you will.

Confidence:

Don’t let anyone tell you that a market is dead: Contrary to other founders, Olmert thinks that if you really believe in something, you should do it. Even if others tell you (as he was told), that there is no addressable market. As it turned out, Playbuzz was simply ahead of the times in terms of interactive content.

Partnerships: choose the right investors:

Choosing the right partners on your journey as a startup is crucial. Choosing investors is like choosing partners for life – you want someone who will believe in your vision, and someone you can get along with.

People:

When hiring, don’t focus on the fluff: Don’t focus on where they went to school and what experience they have. It’s much more important that they understand the product and the grand vision, and that they really want to work with you.

Time:

Once a company starts growing, invest most of your time in the people: Hiring employees is like giving someone else the keys to your car – you have to trust them. This is why Olmert spends much of his time interviewing new employees, and getting to know those who work for him.

Fundraising:

Raise money when you can, not when you need it: Olmert advises that fundraising is a balance. You shouldn’t raise money when you are desperate — you want to come with leverage. However, you should also avoid raising too much money, because the more money you have, the more money you will spend (and at times you will do spend unnecessarily).

Powerful quote:

“Communication is the most important things in human life. And so much of it is done digitally, so if you can improve the communication, you can affect people lives. It’s beyond the industry and making more money, it’s about doing something that matters to people”

About Shaul Olmert:

Olmert grew up in Jerusalem. He was raised by a politician father and an artist mother. He took an early interest in movie-making and cinema. He served in the Israeli army creating instructive video content and then studied design and communications in Germany and the US. He worked as Biz Dev for Oberon Media and was later VP of digital at MTV.

When he returned to Israel, he realized he still didn’t have a clear picture of what he really wanted to do, or what he was really good at. Playbuzz is essentially the result of this soul-searching. Playbuzz enables its customers to distribute and monetize interactive stories that create better audience engagement.

The idea of Playbuzz resulted from the understanding that user attention equals monetization. Once great traffic is established, more advertisers want to advertise alongside the engaging content.

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Jeremy WebbContent is NOT DEAD – follow the BUZZ
read more

Content is NOT DEAD – follow the BUZZ

During our April event, StartupGrind Tel Aviv hosted Shaul Olmert, CEO and founder of Playbuzz. As a platform Playbuzz provides a storytelling platform for publishers and brands ( founded in 2012, raised $66M to date, valued at hundreds of millions of dollars).

Olmert shared his journey, and how Playbuzz became an overnight success, growing from 3,000 users in the first month to over 50M within six months with no advertising budget. They decided to solely use Facebook.

In Olmert’s words, the story of Playbuzz shows how “content is still king!”

Olmert shared with us several tips for entrepreneurs:

Don’t lose faith:

Olmert almost lost faith in himself and went for soul-searching. He had to isolate all the noise and ask himself what he really wanted to do, and what he was good at. This period is what led him to start Playbuzz, that came from the heart.

The big picture:

The main role of the CEO is to remind everyone WHY they are doing what they’re doing – making sure the team preserves the business focus, reminding them what they are trying to achieve. 

Choose what NOT to do:

There is a certain pace in which an organization can grow, so you need to figure out what you are banking on. Each day you have to choose what you are NOT going to do, not only what you will.

Confidence:

Don’t let anyone tell you that a market is dead: Contrary to other founders, Olmert thinks that if you really believe in something, you should do it. Even if others tell you (as he was told), that there is no addressable market. As it turned out, Playbuzz was simply ahead of the times in terms of interactive content.

Partnerships: choose the right investors:

Choosing the right partners on your journey as a startup is crucial. Choosing investors is like choosing partners for life – you want someone who will believe in your vision, and someone you can get along with.

People:

When hiring, don’t focus on the fluff: Don’t focus on where they went to school and what experience they have. It’s much more important that they understand the product and the grand vision, and that they really want to work with you.

Time:

Once a company starts growing, invest most of your time in the people: Hiring employees is like giving someone else the keys to your car – you have to trust them. This is why Olmert spends much of his time interviewing new employees, and getting to know those who work for him.

Fundraising:

Raise money when you can, not when you need it: Olmert advises that fundraising is a balance. You shouldn’t raise money when you are desperate — you want to come with leverage. However, you should also avoid raising too much money, because the more money you have, the more money you will spend (and at times you will do spend unnecessarily).

Powerful quote:

“Communication is the most important things in human life. And so much of it is done digitally, so if you can improve the communication, you can affect people lives. It’s beyond the industry and making more money, it’s about doing something that matters to people”

About Shaul Olmert:

Olmert grew up in Jerusalem. He was raised by a politician father and an artist mother. He took an early interest in movie-making and cinema. He served in the Israeli army creating instructive video content and then studied design and communications in Germany and the US. He worked as Biz Dev for Oberon Media and was later VP of digital at MTV.

When he returned to Israel, he realized he still didn’t have a clear picture of what he really wanted to do, or what he was really good at. Playbuzz is essentially the result of this soul-searching. Playbuzz enables its customers to distribute and monetize interactive stories that create better audience engagement.

The idea of Playbuzz resulted from the understanding that user attention equals monetization. Once great traffic is established, more advertisers want to advertise alongside the engaging content.

No comments
Jeremy WebbContent is NOT DEAD – follow the BUZZ
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Advice to Startups from Shark Tank's Mr. Wonderful

Kevin O’ Leary visited Sacramento on April 19, 2018 to for the “Wealth Building Strategies from a Shark” Event. In 1999, he sold his business, The Learning Company to Mattel for $4.2 billion. O’Leary is also known as Mr. Wonderful on the long running TV show, Shark Tank. To date, he has invested over $8.5 million in over 40 companies that have pitched on Shark Tank.

Three Points for a Successful Pitch

During his presentation at the majestic Crest Theater, he covered three points for a successful startup pitch. In illustrating the points, he used Wicked Good Cupcakes, a company he invested on in Shark Tank, as an example of a great successful pitch. The founders covered his three points and received a $75K investment from O’Leary despite being a commodity that can easily be replicated (You can view their appearance on Shark Tank here).  Here are the three points:

1. Articulate the Opportunity in 90 Seconds or Less

When O’Leary listens to a pitch, in 90 seconds or less, he should be able to understand:

  • What the business does.
  • How it works.
  • What the opportunity is.
  • If the entrepreneur can’t convey the above in 90 seconds, it’s doubtful that he will make an offer. In the case of Wicked Good Cupcakes, the founders quickly explained their business and revenue. 

2. Why the Entrepreneur is the Right Team

O’Leary needs to feel confident that the entrepreneur is able to execute on their business plan. He often sees a great idea where he doesn’t have the confidence in the entrepreneur. As he stated, “Execution is critical.”  Using Wicked Good Cupcakes as an example, their product was wonderful, the founders were articulate and dynamic, and they already had a proven track record. 

3. Know the Numbers

Entrepreneur needs to demonstrate that they know and understand their numbers.  If they don’t know the numbers, they don’t know their business and as Kevin states, “deserves to burn in hell in perpetuity.”   He was impressed with the founders of Wicked Good Cupcakes because they knew their numbers cold; down to the penny.

O’Leary state that if an entrepreneur is able to cover these three points in their pitch, they would be in good shape. 

Why Women Entrepreneurs Make More Money

In terms of giving advice to entrepreneurs, O’Leary did an analysis of the companies he invested in; he found that that the women led companies performed better. In his analysis, the following are things that he found that woman consistently did better.

 1. Time Management

O’Leary stated that there’s a saying that if you want something done, give it to a busy mother.He found that woman were generally better in managing their time and completing tasks.He attributed this to their experience in managing a family where multi-tasking is learned skill.

2. Set Achievable Goals

In general, he found that woman set goals for their employees that were achievable.As a result, because the employees were able to meet their goals, morale was high.In contrast, he found that men often set very high goals that were often unachievable.(He called theses testosterone fueled goals).And in contrast because these goals were not achieved, morale was low.

3. Maintain Cultures that Have Less Employee Turnover

O’Leary found that woman were able to create a positive culture that had less employee turnover than their male counterparts.Looking at the previous point, as an example, because achievable goals were created, employees met their goals, morale was high, and thus people stayed with the company.Whereas in the situation where goals were unrealistic, employees were unable to meet their goals, morale was low and consequently turnover is high.

4. Assimilate Feedback to Enhance Customer Service

He also found that women were better listeners than men.Using that skill, they were able to take feedback from their customers and improve both their business process and service.

5. Protecting the Brand as a Core Principle

O’Leary found that woman did a much better job of protecting the brand of their business.For example an angry customer can do a lot of damage to a company’s brand by going on social media and venting their frustration.Being able to listen and address issues is a core to being able to protect the brand.

These five areas that he found where woman did better than men are also good points that every entrepreneur should heed.

I’m an avid fan of Shark Tank and to be honest, Kevin O’Leary was not my favorite. But after listening to his presentation and Q&A, I have better respect for him. One of the themes in his talk is that it’s much better to be brutally honest in business.

You do people a disservice if you tend to sugar coat.

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Jeremy WebbAdvice to Startups from Shark Tank's Mr. Wonderful
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Complaining Is Ruining Your Life

No matter how good things are, we all have a tendency to complain.

You know the term: First World Problems. 

But complaining adds no value to this world. Even worse, it attracts other complainers, and then they become your circle of influence, leading to a cycle of even more complaining.

It may sound obvious, but instead of complaining about the challenges you are facing, your time is better spent finding a solution and putting that solution into action. When you learn to act on your solutions and build the habit of not complaining, it can lead to a major shift in the quality of your life.

In this article, I want to share some thoughts on why complaining brings you and others down, how to stop perpetuating this cycle, and what to do instead of complaining. 

Once you understand these three things, you can harness your negative energy to focus on your path, not your past, and you will become unstoppable. 

Complaining Compounds Negativity

I used to spend a lot of my time beating myself up or complaining about myself to myself. My increasingly negative focus only created turmoil in my brain and trashed my self-confidence. It is tempting to complain to those around you, or on social media when you’re experiencing adversity in your life, but this is the last thing you should do. 

Research shows that people who complain a lot on their Facebook page are usually the ones who get unfollowed and unfriended the most.

It comes down to Newton’s third law of motion—every action has an opposite or equal reaction.

We all go through bad days and face challenges in our life, but that doesn’t mean we have to post our exact thoughts on social media sites. What’s more important is how you handle those problems.

Honestly? No one gives a shit about how much your girlfriend or boyfriend isn’t paying attention to you, or how your boss won’t give you that raise. There isn’t a person alive who doesn’t have their own problems to deal with every day.

In fact, it says more about your integrity if you remain cool under pressure. 

If your issue doesn’t require serious help from a health professional, then you should contact a friend and talk about what’s bothering you over the phone or in person. That’s a much smarter decision than to post your biased and negative thoughts on social media sites.

If your issues concern your financial situation, instead of whining about how you don’t have enough money, then you might want to consider working harder, getting a second job, or talking to someone who can help you reduce your debt. Maybe you continue to spend money instead of “doing without” for a while. 

Or maybe you’re someone who complains about “how fat you are.” As I said earlier, if you make a plan and follow through with it, you will achieve the results you want. For example, if you cut out all processed foods and refined sugars, and make it a priority to exercise every day, then you’ll start realizing new levels of weight loss.

To be certain, none of this advice is effective until you make a purposeful mental shift to think about what you want as your long-term results. Make sure every decision you make will have a positive effect on your life, or else, don’t do it.

Making these decisions isn’t always easy, in fact sometimes it can be confusing trying to understand the decision you need to make! When this happens you need to look outside yourself to better understand where you are vs where you are going.

Stop Complaining with a Dose of Perspective

A pivotal moment in my life occurred when I vowed to not complain about the wrong things. After working an exhausting eleven-hour day, I was mentally gearing up for my first 100 km ultramarathon race; it was the longest race I’d ever competed in. 

The race was scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m., which meant I’d be running during the night, when normally I’d be asleep. I calculated that the race would take me about 12.5 hours to complete, and I knew I had to focus on my path to get rid of all negative thoughts of fatigue during the run.

As I ran, I saw several homeless people sleeping under a bridge. My first thoughts were, “Damn, that looks comfortable.” Then I began thinking about how those homeless people looked while all curled up, and it made me feel grateful that I wasn’t homeless and that I had a bed to sleep in. More than that, I had a job, food, shelter, and water. 

I really had nothing to complain about, especially while running an ultramarathon. 

That sight kept me grounded. It reminded me what I already knew: after running such a strenuous race, I was usually too wrecked to give a shit about what material items I owned. As long as I had a bed to crash in and some grub to restore those lost calories afterward, that was really all that mattered.

I keep this perspective with me always, the visual stops complaining before it starts for me. My intention is not to offend – I’m not saying you do not have real problems. I simply know the best thing you can do when facing adversity in life is to anchor yourself with some perspective. Do not dwell on the past—choose to start acting for your future.

Substitute Complaining with Action

In my opinion, there is only one thing you should reflect on about your past: that is seeing how far you’ve come. This is another way to gain helpful perspective when you’re getting ready to take action on your plans. 

If you’re at the lowest point of your life right now, then know your reflection will begin with today—but don’t think about your life circumstances until one or two years from now. And don’t complain during this growth process. We know complaining compounds negativity.

So, where does taking action come into play? Simple.

You cannot take action on plans that do not exist. Once you’ve stopped complaining and made your plan it is time to take action and start following your path.

Remember, we focus on the path not the past.

If you’re someone who tends to dwell on the past and you keep reminding everyone about how life was thirty years ago, then you’re living in your own world. Just know that even though war and corruption are still in the news, we are living in the most advanced, easily-accessed, creative times. Learn to embrace what’s around you.

For me, I get frustrated when I hear people complain about things they can’t control. These things include gasoline prices, the stock exchange, and even “how things aren’t as great as they used to be.” It’s obvious the gas giants are the ones to blame for the escalating prices, but if you’re not going to do something about it, then keep your mouth shut. 

If you really care, think of something you can do to save on your gas expenses. Maybe you could buy an electric car or design an app that allows you to collaborate with the gas giants to offer discounted gas. I don’t care how you solve this problem, just don’t complain about the high price of gas if you’re not going to do anything about it.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re eighteen or eighty and you’re reading this.

Just do what you can and don’t complain! None of us are entitled to anything. The world owes you nothing. Just the fact that you’ve been born and have the chance to live should be enough impetus for you to realize you can make anything happen. 

If you want something, work hard for it and don’t complain along the way.

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Jeremy WebbComplaining Is Ruining Your Life
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Employee Personal Life Management Tips Help Company Production

One misconception is that a company should only teach their employees things that will make the company more profitable. Teaching and helping improve certain skills or habits can make an employee a much more productive person at work — and at home.

Be proactive about helping your employees with help on things that they can work on personally as well as professionally. Nobody is perfect so everyone will have at least one personal thing they will want to work on to improve. You can assign these personal tasks monthly to help set goals and keep the team motivated.

Company wide initiatives and programs can help teams bond even if they do not frequently work together. The following are areas in an employee’s personal life that can impact their production that can be fostered by a company.

Physical Health

Physical health is one of the most important things when it comes to producing at a high level for long sustained periods. There cannot be a weight limit and you cannot criticize what someone eats but there are other methods.

Starting a health initiative where everyone takes the stairs or does not consume energy drinks for a month is a good start. Providing lunch is another way to hack employee physical health as many people would rather eat free food instead of lunch made at home or bought outside of the office.

There are so many healthy alternatives that actually taste delicious in comparison to when the health craze first began. Providing lunch also gives the company the ability to avoid foods that tend to make people sleepy like greasy foods or those high in sugar that lead to a crash.

Managing Their Money

The stress that is caused by money might not be as apparent to management as some people are great at hiding this. The worry caused by financial strain can lead to loss in productivity. The simple truth is that many people simply want to live above their means and end up in debt.

Bringing in a financial advisor to talk about investing expendable income instead of spending it then more can be an important lesson for many to learn. Getting the best returns on an investment should be the ultimate goal. With financial issues decreasing you might even see an uptick in morale as stress from lack of money can change a person.

Teaching employees how to make extra money by using their skills that they possess already can be a huge advantage. Those with great writing skills can start a blog that they can turn into a great stream of income.

This will take consistent work but the amount of bloggers that increase their family’s quality of life with this extra income is staggering. With influencer marketing becoming more and more popular it is possible to make even more money if you possess a loyal following on your blog.

Using Time Effectively

Time management throughout the day separates the incredibly productive people from those who cannot seem to hit their quota month after month. Asking employees to track their entire days using a program or app can allow them to see where they are wasting time during their day. For those high producers it can be important for the lower producers to see where most of the time is being spent during the day.

Training programs can be implemented on how you should go about your day in a certain position. Some positions it might be advantageous to knock out all of your emails early while in others the emails will just keep pouring in so it is better to do it once every couple of hours.

Helping your employees with the above three areas can help them live a higher quality of life. This will also allow them to be as productive for the company as possible which is the best outcome for both situations!

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Jeremy WebbEmployee Personal Life Management Tips Help Company Production
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What Your Logo Says About Your Startup

When starting a business there’s a lot to consider. Not only do you have to have a business plan and figure out how to get funding, but you also have to come up with a marketing strategy. At this point you haven’t even started to stock up on inventory, and you’ve got to create that website, and so much more.

Among all the other items on your to-do list, you also have to come up with the perfect logo to represent your business. Tools like Deluxe’s logo maker make it easy to create a logo on your own based on industry-specific templates—saving you both time and money— but there’s still a lot to consider.

Details you might have thought were insignificant can seriously impact how your consumers feel about your brand. Everything from the color and font to the design has meaning, even if it isn’t readily apparent, and it only takes 10 seconds for a customer to form an impression of your business based on its logo. Milton Glaser said, “There are three responses to a piece of design – yes, no, and WOW! Wow is the one to aim for.”

What some entrepreneurs don’t realize is that your logo is more than just a visual representation of your company—it sends a message about your brand. What does your logo say about your startup?

Color

Different colors hold different meanings. They evoke emotions, even if we don’t realize it consciously. The color of your logo can have a serious influence on how consumers and potential customers view your brand. A whopping 84.7 percent of consumers have reported that color was the main reason behind their purchase of a particular product, and 80 percent feel color increases brand recognition.

That said, you can see just how important color is to your design. So, what does the color of your logo say about your company?

Reds –

Red represents power, passion, energy, boldness, excitement, and love.

Purples –

Traditionally, purple represents nobility or royalty, wisdom, and creativity.

Blues –

Blue represents peace, trust, confidence, and caring.

Yellows –

Bright and happy, yellow represents joy, confidence, and optimism.

Oranges –

Orange represents energy, warmth, balance, and friendliness.

Greens –

The dominant color in nature, green represents the environment, health, good luck, growth, and generosity.

Black –

Black represents power, mystery, and sophistication.

Rainbow –

A combination of colors or rainbow design can represent positivity, playfulness, and whimsy.  

Font

Like color, the font you use sends out messages, too. There are thousands of different fonts you can choose from, and if you don’t like any of those, you can create your own. There are five main types of fonts, though.

Serif –

Serif fonts, like Times New Roman, have strokes at the ends of the letters and are considered traditional fonts that communicate authority, reliability, and respect.

Sans Serif –

Sans serif fonts like Calibri are those without the strokes at the ends of the letters. Sans serif fonts are considered more modern because they can be more easily ready in digital formats and communicate stability and objectivity.

Script-Like –

Script-like fonts, like Monotype Corsiva, look like cursive writing and are considered elegant, whimsical, and creative.

Display –

Display fonts are typically non-traditional and attention-grabbing, like Cooper Black. They are unique and expressive fonts.

Modern –

Modern fonts are sleek and expressive fonts like Century Gothic. They communicate progressiveness and strength and are chic and on-trend.

Symbols and Shapes

Just like colors and fonts, symbols and shapes send messages. There are three basic shapes you could use in your logo, geometric, organic, and abstract. Geometric shapes are basic ones like triangles, squares, and circles; organic shapes are things like flowers, leaves, and elements of the natural world.

Abstract symbols are representations of objects like people, signs, and icons. All these are typically composed of the same basic shapes, though.

Squares –

The structured shape of a square represents reliability and stability.

Circles –

Circles represent completion and harmony because they are infinite and connected.

Pentagons, hexagons, and octagons –

These shapes can be used to make your logo stand out as unique and attention-grabbing.

Triangles –

Triangles represent direction. Triangles that are pointed up represent power while triangles that are pointed down typically show instability.

No matter how small, your logo says a lot. When designing a logo, it’s important to consider everything from color to font and the symbols that layer into it. Logos hold a lot of meaning, and you want to be sure that yours sends the right message about your brand.

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Jeremy WebbWhat Your Logo Says About Your Startup
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These Startups Will Help You Survive Wedding Season

When you’re planning a wedding, it’s easy to feel stressed and become overwhelmed. Not only is there so much to plan, but so many places to go and so many things that have to get done. It may seem like you’ll never get it all taken care of in time.

And…YES…Weddings Are Business. Big Business.

Luckily, you’re not alone. There are a lot of others who feel the same way which is why they created companies to solve the challenges you’ll face when planning a wedding and will help make your life a little bit easier.

Startups That Will Make Your Wedding a Breeze.

Enchanted Diamonds –

Enchanted Diamonds makes ring shopping a breeze. They offer everything you need, all in one place. From education about different diamond cuts, color, clarity, etc. to the diamonds and rings themselves as well as wedding bands for the ceremony, there’s no need to go from store to store to find the perfect ring. You can get online, find the perfect one, and focus on planning the proposal.

WeddingWire –

WeddingWire is the ultimate wedding planning tool. You can use it to find venues, vendors, and get ideas, all in one place. They also provide tools that help you with hotel blocks, budgeting, and generating hashtags that will be perfect for the big day. It’s easy to use, extremely helpful, and it doesn’t cost a thing.

Wedivite –

Wedivite is a digital invitation service that lets you save both money and trees. They work to make wedding planning fun, social, and stress-free. With Wedivite you don’t have to worry about invitations getting lost in the mail, and you’ll find out right away if they weren’t delivered for some reason and can correct the issue immediately. Guests can also RSVP making it easy and instant to get an attendance count.

On your Wedivite, you can include directions, ask for song suggestions, receive greetings and notes, and much more!

Azazie –

Azazie is the ultimate resource for all things apparel (for the women of the party anyway). They have everything from bridesmaid dresses (in every color) to dresses for the mother of the bride, and the most beautiful bridal gowns you could dream. They have accessories to top everything off too. If you’re not sure how something is going to look and want to try it before making a final decision, Azazie has a “Try At Home” option to help you make sure everything is perfect, and they offer swatches to make sure that your colors all match.

In addition to all that, if you’re in need of some inspiration or want to see how a certain dress looks on an actual bride, they offer inspiration from real Azazie weddings, color ideas, a style gallery and more!

Menguin –

Menguin is a suit rental service that is all online. You can request swatches to make sure that the colors are perfect, then once you’re ready, you simply build your tux style, invite your groomsmen, enter your sizes, and get it shipped to your house with plenty of time to spare. Once the wedding is over, you put your tux back in the box and attach the prepaid shipping label, drop it in the mail, and you’re done.

Instead of spending hours in stores trying to find the perfect style, fit, and price, you can do it all quickly and easily online and still look as good.

Zola –

Zola is a gift registry site that carries more than 500 brands from Cuisinart and KitchenAid to Oneida and Kate Spade. Instead of couples having to go to the store(s) where they want to register, they can spend that time curled up together on the couch and add anything and everything they could ever want and need to their registry right there online. All you have to do is register, find what you want, and let your guests choose their gifts.

Once it’s all said and done, Zola will ship your gifts to you, but if there’s something you need to exchange before it even arrives, you can do it easily online.

WedPics –

WedPics is a photography site that makes it simple and easy to get all of your guests’ photos of the event in one convenient location. Oh, and it’s free unless you want to upgrade to get premium features! You create your event and can invite an unlimited number of guests. They can share all of their photos, and you can download as many as you want or order prints to keep forever.

Bloomrent –

Bloomrent was launched as a way for brides to get their flowers and centerpieces at an affordable price. Flowers are expensive and can add up fast, but if you go through Bloomrent, you get a discount. How? Well, after you consult with a florist and get your perfect centerpieces, you can list them with Bloomrent to be rented out by others (after your event, of course). ​

When they’re rented out, you Bloomrent will give you a percentage of the price and put money back in your pocket.

AllSeated –

AllSeated is a platform that gives you a 360, 3D view of your venue so that you can do a virtual walkthrough and start planning seating arrangements to get things all worked out before it gets down to crunch time. You can sign up for free and then use their virtual reality technology to look at the venue as if you’re there.

You’ll have constant access to your venue and can design the perfect floor-plan through the platform so that you’ll be completely prepared when it’s time to start arranging.

In Conclusion.

Weddings can be stressful to plan, and surviving wedding season is tough. With the help of these startups, though, you’ll have everything under control in no time and will get to spend more, much-needed quality time with your sweetheart.

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Jeremy WebbThese Startups Will Help You Survive Wedding Season
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How to Conduct an Effective Design Sprint

This post was written by Ondřej Dostál, Designer for Toptal.

design sprint is a methodology invented by Jake Knapp and Google Ventures used to validate ideas through design, prototyping, user testing, and collaboration in only five days. While it won’t leave us with a finished product, it’s debatably the fastest and cheapest way to validate business strategies or product ideas with real users.

It’s a low-risk/high-reward process that offers a more structured and more effective approach to creative thinking compared to traditional brainstorming. The design sprint methodology has been adopted by top companies such as Medium, Slack, and IDEO as well as Google Ventures and the many successful companies they’ve invested in.

Diagram of the 5-day design sprint process

Design sprints are a 5-day process used to validate ideas.

Warming Up for the Sprint

5-day design sprints can be intense, but they’re also fun, exciting, and very insightful as long as the sprint process goes smoothly. In order for this to happen, some planning is required.

Recruiting the Team

A design sprint is run by a facilitator, or “Sprint Master.” Their first objective is to clarify the problem that needs solving and recruit a team to conduct the sprint.

A sprint team usually consists of only 5–7 members, which makes managing the team easier. It’s important that these members have diverse skillsets so that we can approach the problem with a broader spectrum of opinions; hence, a sprint team usually consists of a facilitator, a designer, a developer, a customer service representative, and a marketer.

For remote design sprints, the facilitator should ideally recruit members from similar time zones (or as a last resort, use an app like Every Time Zone to decipher the “time zone sweet spot” where everyone is awake and available at the same time).

After the team is recruited, name one member to be the decider—this person will make the final call on all important decisions. A decider doesn’t have to be a high ranking officer in the company, just someone whose decisions are trusted by the rest of the team.

To summarize:

  • facilitator, to ensure that the team stays on track
  • customer service representative, for user insight
  • designer, for their knowledge of design software and UX
  • developer, for their understanding of any technical limitations
  • marketer, who can determine if the solution has a market value
  • decider, who’ll have the final word on decisions (assigned to one of the above)

A facilitator should ideally book a meeting room for the week, as it’s better to keep the design sprint team isolated from the rest of the company and focused on the sprint.

Remote Teams: Ensure Good Equipment and Surroundings

Each team member should be in a can-talk environment (for example, if using coworking spaces, other members of the coworking space should be okay with us talking throughout the day). A good internet connection and microphone are also essential.

If some team members are in-house while others are remote, consider purchasing a conference microphone (an omnidirectional microphone that sits on a table).

Tools for the Design Sprint

The team will need a way to share their notes, check each others’ schedules, and most importantly, communicate with one another. A natural choice of tools for these tasks is the G Suite, as Google offers a wide range of tools that work seamlessly under a single login, and where team members and documents are super easy to manage.

The tools we’ll need for a design sprint are:

  • Google Hangouts, for group calls
  • Google Calendar, for checking schedules
  • Google Docs, for taking notes, and
  • Google Sheets, for recording the user test results

As well as the G Suite tools, we’ll also need:

Once we check every item off this list, we’re all set to start our design sprint on Monday. It’s worth noting that due to the natural time constraints of design sprints, everyone on the team should understand the design sprint process beforehand.

Monday: Map

The first day of the sprint is dedicated to reverse-engineering the problem. Reverse-engineering is the process of deconstructing the problem in order to understand its root cause, (and in turn, the solution).

Reverse-engineering the Problem

After agreeing on a long-term target (e.g., to increase signups), draw a customer journey map on the whiteboard that depicts the various ways that users might reach this target. Place the users on the left side, the target on the right, then write down all of the steps in between. To keep the whiteboard somewhat organized, the facilitator should draw the map while the rest of the team suggests ideas. This process will set the foundation for the rest of the design sprint, so we should take our time here.

A customer journey map

A customer journey map made with Mural, a digital whiteboard.

Before moving on, the facilitator will discuss the customer journey map with each team member individually, tweaking it if necessary.

Creating “How Might We” Notes

The next step is to add How Might We notes (HMW for short) on the whiteboard. Where each step in the customer journey is likely to come with its own stumbling blocks, HMW notes are formulated as a “How might we…” question on a sticky note—for example, “How might we make the signup form easy to use?” These stumbling blocks are opportunities for improvement and will determine the direction of our MVP design.

Examples of "How Might We" notes

The ideal HMW question isn’t too broad or too narrow. Source: Medium.

Focusing on a Specific Customer Journey

We’ll need to organize the HMW notes by similarity and consolidate them, as we don’t want our whiteboard to become too cluttered. With a cleaner whiteboard, assign each team member two votes to decide which HMW notes should be a high priority.

If the team is using Mural, take advantage of their built-in voting toolsStrawpoll is also a decent alternative, or if the team is using Slack, Polly can be installed in seconds.

Making decisions as a team using Polly for Slack

Polly allows teams to quickly vote on anything in Slack.

Once the voting is over, add the winning HMW notes to the customer journey map and discuss which journey to focus on for the rest of the sprint (other journeys can be explored in another sprint at another time). The decider ultimately has the final decision.

Planning Ahead: Finding User Testers for Friday

During the day, a nominated team member should begin looking for user testers because, on Friday, we’ll want to test the solution that we’ll build on Thursday. It’s recommended that these interviews be conducted face-to-face, or using remote user testing tools such as Lookback and UserTesting (which conveniently integrate with prototyping tools Marvel and InVision respectively).

6–10 interviews is a reasonable amount. Schedule the interviews for about 10-ish so that there is enough time to review them at the end of the day.

Tuesday: Sketch

Tuesday is about finding a solution. Get ready to start sketching!

First things first, get inspired. Most innovations are made by remixing old ideas, so try to explore already-existing solutions to similar problems. While the team suggests solutions to look at, the facilitator will place viable solutions on the whiteboard.

After that, each team member will choose a section of the customer journey to sketch by themselves, using a method known as The Four-Step Sketch.

The Four-Step Sketch

The four-step sketch approach to prototyping is designed to systematically turn abstract ideas into concrete solutions via rapid iteration. They don’t need to be perfect.

Rapid iteration using the four-step sketch method

The four-step sketch is a systematic approach to sketching.
  • Step 1: Notes—start with 20 minutes of note-taking
  • Step 2: Ideas—for another 20 minutes, sketch some rough ideas
  • Step 3: Crazy 8s—sketch eight variations of the best idea, one minute per variation
  • Step 4: Solution Sketch—create a three-step storyboard of the solution, spending 30–120 minutes adding more fidelity to the chosen variation

A three-step storyboard

A three-step storyboard that illustrations the suggested solution in more detail.

After completing the exercise, wrap up the day by handing over the sketched solutions to the facilitator. (Remote teams: Upload them to an InVision Project or Mural Whiteboard.)

Wednesday: Decide

Wednesday is about selecting the best solution and creating a final storyboard.

Once each team member has privately reviewed the sketches, discuss each solution as a group, spending no more than three minutes per sketch. Then take another vote, this time deciding on which solution will be storyboarded and prototyped for user testing.

Next, we’ll need to prepare the storyboard for prototyping by increasing the fidelity. It’s best if the designer recreates the chosen storyboard as a high-contrast wireframe, as we don’t want to overthink the design due to our time constraints. A simple or “ugly” UI will do fine, as long as the user tester is able to visualize and understand it.

It’s up to the designer whether to use AxureBalsamiq, or something else entirely to design the wireframe. Even a design tool like Sketch or Adobe XD would be suitable, as long as we’re focusing on the UX and choosing function over form.

A wireframe made in Balsamiq

A wireframe made in Balsamiq.

On Thursday, we’ll turn this wireframe into a clickable prototype!

Thursday: Prototype

Before anything, we’ll need to confirm the interview times with the user testers. As mentioned earlier, aim to start them at around 10–11 AM so that we have enough time to review the interviews (and the effectiveness of the overall design sprint) afterward.

Assign at least one team member (preferably the marketer or customer support representative) to write a script for the customer interview. This person will create a list of questions in a Google Sheet to ask the user tester as they review our prototype.

A Google Sheet with customer interview questions

Scripted interview questions to be asked during user tests.

Meanwhile, the prototyping designer will begin turning the wireframe into an interactive prototype with the rest of the team’s input and direction. It’s up to the designer which tool should be used, and also depends on the tool used to create the wireframe.

For example, if Axure was used to create the wireframe, then we could also use it for prototyping, especially since we can preview the prototype on mobile afterward.

If the wireframes were sketched on paper, Marvel offers a dead simple way to import and recreate them before turning them into interactive prototypes and conducting user tests with their Lookback integration.

If the wireframes were created in Sketch or Photoshop, the way to go would be InVision as it’s easily the most widely-adopted and full-featured prototyping app available today. It also allows for live previewing and directly integrates with UserTesting.

If created in Adobe XD, then we can also use it to create and user test our prototype without any additional tools.

Friday: Test

Friday—the final day of the design sprint. Our prototype is ready for user testing, and we’ll start the day by making sure that the team has the prototype and script at hand.

After that, we’ll begin the interviews using the The Five-Act Interview method:

The Five-Act Interview

  1. Act 1: Friendly Welcome. Make the tester feel comfortable and welcome, then explain what user testing is and why we’re doing it.
  2. Act 2: Context Questions. Ask broad questions to learn more about the user and their background, then gradually steer the conversation towards the prototype.
  3. Act 3: Introducing the Prototype. Make sure that the tester understands why something might not work as expected and that there are no wrong answers when it comes to feedback. We want to encourage honest, candid feedback.
  4. Act 4: Tasks. Let the user figure out the prototype for themselves. Ask open-ended questions to encourage the tester to think aloud.
  5. Act 5: Debrief. Ask the tester to summarize their experience. Don’t forget to thank them for their time, and request if we can follow up if needed.
The Five-Act Interview is a five-step approach to conducting user testing interviews.

During the customer interview, record the answers in a Google Sheet. Once all of the interviews are complete, try to identify common insights and label them as positivenegativeor neutral. From this, we’ll be able to decide whether or not our prototype was a good solution to the problem, and if so, identify areas of improvement.

Next Steps

While design sprints won’t result in a finished product, they do help validate ideas quickly and affordably, providing a wealth of insights in a relatively short space of time. Before wrapping up the sprint, decide what to do with the prototype.

Will we improve the prototype and conduct a follow-up sprint?

Will we tackle a different customer journey in another sprint?

A huge benefit to learning how to conduct an effective design sprint is that we can reuse the technique to develop and experiment with ideas time and time again.

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Michelle YoungHow to Conduct an Effective Design Sprint
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How Much Data Does Facebook and Advertisers have on You?

Over the last ten years Facebook has gathered too much data and shared far it too widely.  Facebook knows more than you think they know about you, and behind every feature, it is collecting data.  With the latest Cambridge Analytica-Facebook privacy data scandal, I think it’s important for both consumers and businesses to fully understand how Facebook is using and selling your data to advertisers.

These advertisers then target you with ads in an almost “psychically creepy,” stocking way.  Business Insider recently reported about hidden trackers on websites that use ‘login with Facebook‘ to harvest your data. 

A conspiracy theory has been going around among Facebook and Instagram users:  are these two companies maybe tapping our microphones to target ads? According to a statement released by Facebook’s Newsroom, “Facebook does not use your phone’s microphone to inform ads or to change what you see in News Feed.”  

And our government swears that there are not any aliens being kept in the secretive base, in Nevada, called Area 51.  

Some of Facebook’s past employees have been quoted saying that scanning and upload that much audio data “would strain the resources of the NSA,” says Antonio Garcia Martinez, a former Facebook ad-targeting product manager.

 For this to be possible, “Facebook would need to understand the context of what you are saying – not just listen for the words to mentioned, “ Sandy Parakilas, a former Facebook operations manager said.

Recently reported by the WSJ, Facebook, has admitted to logging the phone call and messaging histories of some Android smartphone users who installed its messaging app or a lighter version of its main Facebook app.

This followed users’ reports on Twitter in the past week that they had examined their Facebook data and saw the company logging the information.

So, if Facebook and Instagram are really not eavesdropping on conversations, then how is it that users are often shown ads which seem like they these social media sites appear to know too much about them?  

While Facebook’s technologies have become very sophisticated at watching what we do online, and even offline, as we are wandering around the actual world – how do they obtain our personal data if they are not literally listening to our conversations?  

Because of this question, I decided to conduct a bit of research on what information and data Facebook and its advertisers collect, and the data I have handed over to them.  

Based on my research, it now has become abundantly clear as to why we get those eerily relevant ads sometimes — I will detail my findings below. I also want to touch on how Facebook and other advertisers sometimes “get it wrong” in an almost comically annoying way.  

Just because you’re in your thirties, and you are a woman who bought a baby shower gift, doesn’t mean you need to see ads for maternity clothes every time you open Facebook. When an ad is shown enough to annoy you, you can click the little arrow on the top right corner of the post, then select “Why am I seeing this?” option.

why-am-i-seeing-this

It’s fairly obvious that advertising is a crucial component of the free internet, but the companies that are buying and selling ads appear to be crossing the line in certain cases.  Sometimes, it almost seems like they are stalking you. I think it’s important for companies that are getting started on Facebook advertising, and for users of these platforms, to understand what they’re doing, and what a person can – or cannot – do to limit info if privacy is a concern.

Here are the four major areas where Facebook and advertisers are collecting data and what you can do about it:

1) What you have purchased?

If you shop at pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens to buy some medicine, they usually ask you to key in your phone number to get rewards or loyalty points. Many people do this without thinking about it.  When you enter your email, phone number or a customer ID card as you check out at a store, your purchase history is recorded and stored.

In turn, data brokers can legally obtain your purchase information details because they buy that history from stores, like CVS or Walgreens, that sell their customer purchase information.

This is how information about the contents of what you just bought suddenly begins to spread. As an example, a third party collector, such as Nielsen-Catalina Solutions, will compile and categorize purchase history that it acquires from CVS about its customers.  

So, if I bought a bottle of Theraflu, the manufacturer, GlaxoSmithKline plc (GSK), could pay Nielsen-Catalina Solutions for this information.  When this information is purchased, GlaxoSmithKline is now armed with an enormous arsenal of Facebook’s advertising tools, information from my loyalty cards, email or phone number and more.  

Using all this data, GlaxoSmithKline can match their advertising with my Facebook account. Now according Facebook, data brokers run personal information through an algorithm before uploading it, so that it’s not identifiable, but it can still be matched with Facebook account information.  

So then continuing with this example, GSK, via Facebook, can decide to target adults between the ages of 25 to 54, who purchased Theraflu or a competing brand.   

How to Opt Out of Data Gathering

Follow the links below for instructions to stop tracking by the largest data brokers:

For starters, if you want to limit the amount information that is sold and used by advertising, try using store loyalty cards, or at least sign up for them with an email or phone you do not use.   

Facebook works directly with the six data brokers listed above, all of which give you the opportunity to opt out of them sharing of your personal data, from your email to your purchase history.  Of course, this is not easy, by design. The “opting out” process literally requires visiting each data broker website and completing a form with, yes, your personal info!

2) Where have you and your devices been?

For advertisers, what could be better than your purchase history? That answer can be found in the famous phrase: location, location, location.  Did you stop at a retail store? This ad will remind you to return! Are you in close vicinity to one of our shops? Well, here is a coupon.    

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, called “Your Location Data Is Being Sold—Often Without Your Knowledge” the author, describes how advertisers are using all kinds of location signals.  Which include your smartphone’s GPS, Wifi-access points around you, IP addresses and more to follow your breadcrumbs.

Do you want to limit Facebook from knowing where you are?  To do so, follow these steps in Facebook’s mobile app (IOS and Android):

Settings > Account Settings > Location and turn off location tracking.

For increased security, you can disable location history as well prevent the social network from keeping tabs on your whereabouts.  It does not stop from there.  Other apps can pinpoint your locale and serve you ads back through Facebook.

So, before granting any new app location access, think it through.  On an iPhone, you can do the following: Settings > Privacy > Location Services and go through the apps that you have already granted location access. If you are concerned with turning this kind of tracking?  They should all say “Never” or “While Using” – not “Always.” If you have an Android, it’s easier: just go to Settings > Location.

Additionally, businesses can opt-in to provide wifi access or just monitor devices in their establishment and then be paid by the number of devices that use their network or are trapped in their beacon.  An example of this is a local hot dog restaurant, who stated conversationally to the CEO of a small marketing firm that he was getting monthly checks from a company that had installed a tracker for mobile devices in his restaurant, and there was nothing he needed to do besides give permission for the tracker to be there.

3) Which apps do you use regularly?  

Let’s assume you are thinking about keeping in shape- Summer will be here soon enough. So, you go into the iTunes App Store and download a food-tracking app to your iPhone. The next day you may see your Facebook and Instagram feed flooded with fitness and weight loss ads. If it was already obvious, the Facebook-owned Instagram pulls from the same ad selection.   

How it usually works with these apps is that you initially download and use a free version of an app. Let’s use the example of a food tracking app called Lose lt.  

You will be shown ads from Facebook’s Audience Network. Now, even if you do not login to the app via Facebook, the companies swap information.  Usually the app’s maker or parent company can use your iPhone’s Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA). The IDFA is a number stored on your phone, to match up any other history associated with your  IDFA, which also includes your Facebook account.

Again if you want to limit this, go into your iPhone’s Settings menu.  It is there where you can actually limit the ability for advertisers to get a hold of your iPhone’s unique identifier.  

Keeping with the same food tracking app example, if you open the app, your IDFA could become associated with “Weight Loss” or even “Healthy Living” which would now be marked on your Facebook advertising profile.     

Apple gives you the ability to limit advertisers from getting your IDFA. In iOS go to Settings > Privacy > Advertising > turn on Limit Ad Tracking.  At the time you should reset the advertising identifier. With Android’s similar system, just go to Settings > Google > Ads > Opt out of Ads Personalization.  

4) What have you clicked or visited?    

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Obviously,  web browsing history is another way that Facebook mines and collects information about you. The ‘social plug-ins’ (for example, the ‘Like’ or ‘Share’ buttons) and the Facebook Pixel is installed on millions of apps and websites.  Facebook Pixel allows advertisers to see what you do on there.

Often referred to as re-marketing or social retargeting, it’s when you see an ad for Vineyard Vines dress shirts after browsing for them.  Add something to a shopping cart? Click on a different product or article on the site. The Pixel will know.         

If you find it annoying that ads are following you around, you can have some options.  One option is called interest-based advertising. It is pretty common and is used across the web by the big tech platforms.  Google, Amazon, Facebook and others offer ways to opt out on their own websites.

Specifically, on Facebook, you can go to Settings > Account Settings > Ads > Ad Settings and turn off all the settings on that page. If you want to take it a step further, you can delete any interests Facebook may have gathered about you previously. If you want to prevent the same when you are your Laptop, install the extensions Ghostery or Privacy Badger  on your browser.  

Both of these to view and disable – trackers that are running on webpages. The Firefox browser just made a smart play: by creating a Facebook Container Extension. that helps you control more of your web activity by separating your Facebook profile from the rest of your web-browsing to limit the info FaceBook can collect about you on other websites via third party cookies.   

Who are you really?  

All that information, combined with your activity on Facebook, as well as Instagram – which post or pages you’ve liked, the people you are friends with and more- give the social media behemoth a very good social graph portrait of you.  This portrait gets even more clear when more information from the data brokers: your salary, car preference, home size, political affiliations, spending habits and much more is revealed.  

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This is why, just behind Google, Facebook commands the second most digital advertising spend. During the last quarter of 2017, Facebook reported $12.97 billion in revenue, including $12.78 billion from ads.  That’s 98.5 percent of Facebook’s revenue coming from ads.

This is what allows any advertiser to log into Facebook Ads Manager and perform micro-targeting. You can try it for yourself, log in and laser focus on people in a certain zip code who have bought appliances and furniture- people who are “likely to move soon.”   

Now short of deleting Facebook entirely and moving into the woods, there is not anything you can do stop this entirely.    

Some people can argue that having all this data means that they can provide you with more relevant ads. And some people care more than others about their privacy and personal information being used.

 Facebook’s spokesperson Joe Osborne says: “That’s why we build our targeting tools in a way that doesn’t share people’s personal information with advertisers and that gives people control over the ads they see.” But, if we circle back to the latest Cambridge Analytica data scandal, where millions users information was used without their knowledge for political gain, you have to wonder.

How much do you trust Facebook and what their PR team says? Facebook had already settled a case with the FTC in 2011 that required Facebook to protect user data from this sort of thing, AND obtain permission from (and notify) users before using or sharing their data.   

Facebook is doing what it always set out to do: collect our data points and sell them to anyone willing to pay. Do you actually think Goldman Sachs and DST Global (a Russian investor with Kremlin ties) chipped in $450 million so we can post cat videos and pictures of our food for free?   

The goal of connecting the world is just marketing, and to do that, you must understand that the value of Facebook is two-fold, that of your data to third parties and to the direct ads that are targeted to you.  In addition, this could also include the dimension of your friends, who have not signed up for the ads that are focused on you, but of people in your social circle who may have similar tastes to you. Just assume that if it’s a free app, you, and your social circle, are the product.

Conclusion      

As a cofounder of a digital marketing agency, I understand that advertising has been what has financed radio, TV and free content on the internet. Whenever you sign up for a free service, which has been designed to be easy to use, with terms and conditions discreetly listed in inconspicuous text somewhere on the bottom of the page, you are the product or target.

My concern is that the public still does not have enough transparency about how exactly these digital ads are targeted toward us.  

The more that consumers understand about the linkage between smartphones, browsing history, location history and data that can now be aggregated with demographic information provided from you to Facebook, the more this targeting will make sense. It’s not that “they” are listening to your conversations through your computer’s microphone, but data aggregation.

“They” (marketers) are monitoring users app downloads and daily trips to Wholefoods, and know their age and income information in addition to their browsing history, and purchase history.  The more consumers understand this, the more they realize how much their privacy is at stake, and it will be incumbent upon the user to police their own privacy.

Heads up: if you are still worried about the mic on your phone, by all means you can turn it off.  (On iPhone, go to Settings > Privacy > Microphone > Facebook. On Android, go to Settings > Apps > Facebook > Permissions > Disable microphone.  In the iPhone’s Settings menu, you can disable the Facebook app from accessing your microphone.   

Facebook is now trying to rebuild it’s trust, by announcing a post in it’s newsroom titled “ It’s Time to Make Our Privacy Tools Easier to Find.”  It also just said that it’s going to limit how much data it makes available to advertisers (by cutting third-party data providers) buying hyper-targeted ads on the social network.

More specifically, Facebook says it will stop using data from third-party data aggregators — companies such as Experian and Acxiom — to help supplement its own data set for ad targeting.   

If the issue is privacy, why does every app and site incentivize users to scroll past pages of legal boilerplate to hit “I Agree,” rather than writing up top in large type:

*****“THIS IS THE ONE SENTENCE YOU’VE GOTTA THINK ABOUT BEFORE YOU AGREE”?    

Facebook’s Privacy Updates

Recently since Mark Zuckerberg CEO, was called in on April 10th and 11, to testify before Congress, FB announced a bunch of changes: restricting access that apps can get about users’ events, as well as information about groups such as member lists and content.

In addition, the company is also removing the option to search for users by entering a phone number or an email address. While this helped individuals find friends who may have a common name, Facebook says businesses that had phone or email information on customers were able to collect profile information this way. 

A few weeks ago all Facebook users will received a notice on their Facebook feeds with a link to see what apps they use and what information they have shared with those apps. They’ll have a chance to delete apps they no longer want. Facebook’s new privacy policy aims to explain the data it gathers on users more clearly — but doesn’t actually change what it collects and shares.

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Jeremy WebbHow Much Data Does Facebook and Advertisers have on You?
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