Thrive in the Service Industry Without Becoming a Servant

If you work in the creative services industry (designer, developer, marketer, copywriter, etc) — how would your clients describe you?

Vendor? Crazy Artist? Web guy? Ad writer? Or simply, a “creative”?

If you carry one of these labels, you are doing something wrong.

You have been hired to do something your client (or boss) is not good at. YOU provide value. You ARE valuable.

I have always cringed at the label “artist”. No offense directed at the myriad of “artists” out there, but I am NOT one. I hate artists.

I am a designer. There is a difference.

My work helps to solve a client’s problem. Through a creative process of thinking and understanding, we—designers, developers, marketers, copywriters—uncover methods and functions that help solve problems.

In other words, we help people complete tasks and help businesses make money. We uncover elements and processes that others don’t see and/or understand.

Getting Better At What You Do

The creative services industry is a temporary industry. The learning is never-ending.

Changes happen daily, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute: HTML5, CSS3, Responsive Design, iOS development … the list goes on.

The constant struggle to stay on top of the current trend is exhausting.

Your clients, your boss and your peers don’t care about this upward battle. It’s your own battle—and success up to you. In fact, the more you know, the better your work will be.

But, getting good at what you do doesn’t come without costs.

Part of your on-going education includes learning how to communicate, present and sell your work to clients, bosses and co-workers.

No matter how good you are—and how good the work is—if you can’t convince others, you haven’t succeeded.

By the way, this job can’t be done by someone else… your boss, or account executive. It needs to be done by you.

Rising Above the Fray

At my first design job out of college, I had a douche-bag marketing director who would present my work to executives and stakeholders.

The worst part: He took credit for everything I did.

It took me three years to get a raise. And, the raise only happened after I decided I’d had enough and started to personally sell and present my work to senior executives.

This allowed me the opportunity to explain what I did, why I did it, and why it helps to solve the problem.

I quickly moved up the ranks.

Sell Your Own Work

Selling the work is an important job for any creative services professional… and by “selling the work”, I mean presenting and explaining the work yourself, not handing it off to an account executive or some other person.

When you take the time to present your work, you get the opportunity to explain the work—letting people know why you did what you did.

What’s more, you can receive first-hand criticism enabling you to produce a better Version Two (if that’s the case).

Remember, you have more power than you think. Use it.

Do You Like the Labels?

If the work you produce equates to little more than providing a technical service for the person (or company) employing you, then—let’s face it—you deserve the label of Vendor, Crazy Artist, Web guy or Ad Writer.

What accompanies these labels, is lower fees and lower-quality work put on your desk. If you are employed, you will enjoy a lower salary.

So, stand-up for what you believe in. Stand-up for your work.

You are smarter than you think. Show it.

12 High-Quality Rules for Successful Selling

Since my days in college, I’ve been on a quest to improve my sales and interpersonal skills. I think I have a great personality, and would say I am pretty good at sales… that is, convincing other people to buy something.

Each and every year, I get better and better at selling. But, it took time to learn.

Not like my best friend in college. This guy was the best salesman I have ever met—until I met my Wife, but more on that later.

I remember hanging out together in our dorm rooms and he would say, “Let’s go to Wendy’s and get some food.”

At this time in college, I didn’t have much money. The money I did have was spent on rent, Top Ramen and beer… not fast-food. My buddy didn’t have any money either. But that never stopped us from going to Wendy’s.

And, I always came back with a belly full of food, without having spent a dime.

You see, my buddy was so good at selling that he could persuade any person to give us a bunch of food for free, man or woman. It didn’t matter where we went: Wendy’s, Taco Bell, McDonalds, etc, we could get food.

To this day, he’s still a great salesperson and has a couple highly successful businesses he owns. But he’s not as good as my Wife.

It’s one thing to convince someone to give you a bunch of free food from Wendy’s. It’s another thing altogether to convince someone to by a $2 million home.

My Wife’s forte is selling luxury real estate. She’s damn good. Every year since 2003 she’s been in the top 1% of all agents in total real estate sales.

She’s charming and energetic. People like her. She has a natural ability to make people feel at ease and she’s a masterful, tough negotiator. A few custom home builders in Reno use her exclusively as their sales agent.

I’ve learned more about selling from my Wife that any other person, book or seminar.

What I can tell you is there is certain aspects of selling anyone can learn… you don’t have to be “born” with the special selling skill.

Let’s discuss a couple of traits my Wife exhibits when selling.

First, she smiles. A lot. Not much more I can say about this. Smiling makes you feel better. And in turn, helps make the other person feel better about the conversation and what you’re trying to sell.

The second trait is talking. My Wife can “chat” any person up. It could be a CEO or janitor … she can make a conversation with anyone. And by the way, when I say conversation, she’s NOT the one doing the talking. That’s a very important distinction, more on that later.

So how can you improve your sales skills? Below are 12 methods you can learn to help improve your ability to sell more products and services.

  1. Get people to like you. People do business with those they like. Having a pleasing personality is the total of your mental, spiritual and physical traits.
  2. Be dependable and do what you say you’re going to do. This applies to everything. Make sure to show up to meetings early. Make the phone call you scheduled. When you make a promise, do exactly what you promised.
  3. Help others succeed. Success attracts more success while failure attracts more failure. Positive mental attitude is the right mental attitude in all circumstances, and if you can help other people be successful—wealth, success and sales will follow.
  4. Be the expert. Your future clients want to do business with people who are experts in their fields. So to get better at selling, you need to become an expert in your field through practice, research, training, education, and study. Then you need to produce tangible objects that demonstrate your expertise: published articles, books, teaching seminars and/or giving speeches.
  5. Tell the truth. I shouldn’t have to explain that more. Tell the truth, period. No good as ever come from lying.
  6. Stay fit. Eat right and exercise. This is an important point. All the greatest business people and sales people I have ever met are in-shape, fit people. I have yet to meet a fat salesperson who is any good. I know that sounds harsh, but people are attracted to those who are physically attractive or at least not physically repulsive. Pay attention to your personal hygiene. Dress well… “Look Good — Feel Good”.
  7. Be genuinely interested in other people. The statement sounds so simple, yet it is profound. A few years ago, I thought the key to getting people to like you, was to be so interesting, people would want to like you. Alas, I was mistaken. People don’t care about you—they care about themselves.
  8. Listen to others. Remember the old cliché: “You have two ears and one mouth because you should listen twice as much as you talk.” People respond to those who listen and pay attention to what they are saying. Listening shows a genuine interest in the other person… refer to rule #7.
  9. Identify common traits with others. People tend to do business with others who are like them. In sales, identify something you have in common with your customer and expand on it.
  10. Be humble. Nobody likes a person who brags excessively. You should never talk about how big your house is, or how much money you make. There are more effective methods to prove your worth.
  11. People are impressed by others being busy doing things. Have you ever heard the phrase: “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.”? Never tell a prospect that things are slow and you need the work. Ever been to a restaurant where there’s a long wait? Makes you want to try the food that much more doesn’t it!
  12. Make other people’s lives easier. If your product or service helps solve a person’s problem, you will make the sale every time. People also like to deal with those who are accommodating and flexible.

How many of these sales skills do you already have and use? I hope a lot. But keep practicing. Each day you will get better at selling.

Enhancing The User Experience in Software Design

A major component of UI design is dealing with delete buttons. Most web users don’t read the contents of pop-up or modal windows… they just hit the “delete” or “save” button and move on.

That’s fine and good, until you have a user accidentally delete an important piece of content… the master email list of preferred vendors, for example.

That would not be good. Shit meet fan.

So how do we deal with deleting information in software and UI design?

One method used by many is to this is to create a “Trash” option—similar to a desktop computer.

Now, for the unfamiliar, sending a document to the “Trash” on a Mac or PC does NOT actually delete that document, it simply sends that document to a folder labed “Trash”. To actually delete something, you have to force the computer to empty (or delete) items in the trash.

In UI and software design, we should think of the Trash as a place to store items you may want to delete, but also giving users a place to undo—or go back and retrieve some document later.

Proper Labeling of Buttons and Other Actions

Unfortunately, the majority of people who will use your software will not be “power users”.

A power user is some person who is very fast and efficient with a computer and computer software. They typically use keyboard shortcuts and other techniques to complete tasks. The majority of software engineers would be considered “power users” for example.

Now, if we were designing software and user interfaces ONLY for power users, then the naming and placement of buttons and actions would be very simple. But, alas, “power users” will not make up the base of your software clients—only a small percentage of the whole (in most cases).

So, the interface design challenge is to create an interface that caters to all users, but somehow does not get in the way of our power users.

One way to do this is by writing better copy in your software interfaces.

For example, I am a huge fan of using in-context button labeling and tool tips. I think it’s an elegant way to help your users complete tasks, while staying (relatively) out-of-the-way.

Remember, the words you use in your interface have meaning and function. Words help your users get from point A to point B. Words are important—use them wisely.

Super Bowl Ads Are a Waste of Money

Yesterday, my beloved 49ers lost their bid for a 6th Super Bowl victory. They didn’t deserve to win. Their first half performance was proof. Pathetic.

What’s more pathetic were the Super Bowl ads. I cringe at the amount of money spent wasted on these ads—millions and millions of dollars.

But hey! Certain companies were able to get their “name” in the Super Bowl. And, overpriced creative directors in agencies around the world are getting their 15 minutes of fame, talking about how “brilliant” they are.

Direct response agencies are shaking their heads at the wastefulness of this advertising.

Let’s not forget, the principal job of an advertisement is to sell products and services.

How many ads in yesterday’s game did this—actually sold products? Zero.

Matter of fact, in 90% of all the ads, my Wife and I looked at each other asking: "Exactly what was that ad trying to sell?"

These ads are ego-driven—the ego of the CEO and the ego of the agency. Investors would be wise to sell shares in companies that advertise in the Super Bowl.

Salesmanship First

Selling must come first in advertising and marketing. Art second.

Super Bowl ads have it the other way around. “Oohs” and “Ahs” from agency art directors is the ad’s main objective. Not selling.

Most ad agencies shy away from direct response advertising and marketing because it’s hard. Trust me, creating campaigns that actually sell products and services is difficult. Period. Try it for yourself.

The goal of direct response marketing is to generate an immediate response from consumers. Each consumer response (and purchase) can be measured, tracked, and attributed back to individual advertisements.

Did The Ad Make Money

The best aspect of direct response is the measurement of ROI (return on investment). Did the ad sell products and make the company money?

Yes or no… it’s very simple.

Most people do not understand the importance of marketing.

And, by the way, when I use the term “marketing” I am only talking about direct response. There is no reason to do any other form of marketing. Unless of course, your company is doing billions in revenue and you just have to have a Super Bowl ad… then, of course, you can do whatever you want.

But until your company is producing billions in revenue, direct response is your friend. Learn it and use it.

Quality marketing is just as important as a quality product. You could have the best product in the world, but if nobody knows about it, then no one cares.

Let me put it in a different, more concrete way:

If nobody buys your product, then no one cares. That’s the validation test.

Will Your Audience Buy Your Product

It does not have to be your full-fledged product—it might only be your MVP. Actually, when you are starting out, it should be your MVP. Test to see if your product is viable.

Timothy Ferris made this strategy famous. Look where it got him!

You don’t even need an actual product to test your market. Have people sign-up to an email list. Let users download a whitepaper. Actually charge a person’s credit card, then refund the money…

… These are all methods of testing direct response marketing campaigns. The goal is to get future clients to “do some thing” that will help you make money.

Copywriting In User Interface Design

Have you ever used a new software program that seems to do everything you want… but very quickly you find out you can’t really do anything? Or at least do anything easily?

Not that the software you purchased lacks in functionality—the features are there—you just can’t figure out how to use it.

How do I do this or that? What does this icon do? Where is this feature?

We’ve all been there. Frustrated.

This is a common problem with software. It might be the best software solution available, but if nobody can use the application, it’s pretty much worthless.

"Don’t make me think" right?!

So what can we do to make the tasks we want to perform appear naturally, seamlessly? In other words, how can we (as UI/UX designers) make software easy to use?

The starting point is to write better copy.

First, let’s talk about why we want to write copy that makes our software easier to use.

Educating users within the user interface leads to better adoption of the software.

If you make the user interface and user experience easy, more people will use your software. You will have less abandon rates. And, you will keep current users happy.

You also get the added benefit of more sales. Yea!

How do you keep users happy?

My solution is to treat your content as copywriting. Whoa, don’t cringe… this is easier than it sounds.

When you think of “copy” most people associate that word with advertising. The goal of advertising copy is to motivate a change in behavior. Copy is all about the reader—the user.

In our interfaces, we want the user to take action. And, we want those actions to be seamless—the user shouldn’t have to “think” about doing some thing in our application.

Copy in your software should be concrete and useful. It should change how your customers think about the task they are performing. Words and phrases in interface design should be treated as carefully as graphics, navigation and other elements.

This is user experience.

Copywriting must be part of the UI designer’s job.

Now, I admit, not many UI developers enjoy writing copy. They enjoy designing and developing.

But, copy needs to be included. Front and center… leading the user forward… keeping the user engaged… making your application easy to use.

When I start to build UI layouts, I also start the writing process. It’s a mistake to “deal with it later”. Agile software development is fast, and it’s easy to leave small things behind.

Write As You Design

If you start the writing process as you design, your work flows become much easier. Your initial writing will get everyone on the team thinking about best phrases and the best naming conventions for navigational items and tool tips and more.

Also, when you write copy, please do not use lorem ipsum. I know, it’s super easy to use. But the problem is, you will end-up writing your copy based around a pre-determined content area.

This direction (using lorem ipsum) puts artistry before messaging. Remember, your application must be easy to use. And, not only that, we need to educate our users at the same time.

The words you write have meaning and function. Words help your users get from point a to point b. Words should be used as navigation.

Here’s a simple example for a time-management app. You can choose which one is better (Version 1 or Version 2).

Version 1

Popup Window: Do you want to save?
Option: "Yes" or "No"

Version 2

Popup Window: Hold Up! You haven’t saved your changes to this time log. Would you like to save your changes?
Option: "Yes, save all changes" or "No, discard changes"

I know you’ll choose the right answer. ;)

If you think about it, navigation is simply a method of moving between sections of your application. Links. Buttons.

The best navigation shows the user what parts are important and what parts are not important.

Navigational elements must be consistent across all pages. Global, sub and in-context links should have the same style treatments, and should use the same words and phrases.

I know this seems basic. It is.

But these are issues that need to be addressed and implemented from the start. Remember, at the end of the day, your software application should be easy to use.

Agile Software Development

Late last year, I joined a team of software engineers focused on building a cloud-based business-management software product.

The application is web-based and has a lot of different requirements, features and functionality to it.

One of the first things I had to learn was Agile Software development and Scrum.

I’ll tell you right now, I had no idea what either of these methods were. So I took to the internet and Google to give me the explanation.

Agile is the Environment

The first thing I learned is that “Agile” doesn’t necessarily describe the software we are building… instead, it describes the Team’s environment.

In other words, “Agile” is the way the Team works together. It describes the ability of Team members to shift focus and adapt to challenges.

A big problem in software development is changing requirements. This happens a lot, and can often be a huge factor in delivering the product on time and on budget.

With agile development, the Team accepts the scope changes and moves on. The reality of change in agile is constant and expected.

Agile processes accept the fact that requirements will change and thus create new opportunities for enhancement.

Faster Software Development

Often times, the Team can have a working version of the software up in less than a week.

Creating the best product is easier this way—you don’t wait 6 months to test—you can start testing within a week. That’s powerful. It allows you to measure your progress by testing and using what you currently have.

Scrum

My next task was to figure out “Scrum”.

On our Team, we have a Scrum Master. This is essentially a person who manages the process for how information is exchanged.

Scrum is a rugby term that describes how opposing teams huddle together to restart the game. That’s where the name comes from.

In software development, the term describes how members of the Team huddle together each morning to review progress and restart the project.

These daily meetings are called “Scrums”.

The Scrum Master goes around the table and asks each person on the Team:

  • What did you do yesterday?
  • What will you do today?
  • Are you experiencing any challenges?

A common tendency for any designer, developer, marketer, whatever… is to push out work until the last possible time.

If “Feature A” needs to be done by Friday next week, that individual might wait until Thursday to begin work.

This happens in businesses across the planet, not just software companies.

This procrastination is not allowed in Scrum meetings (or in agile development).

Each day, you have to present what you’ve done the day before. Other Team members are depending on the work you are doing.

The Scrum meetings also identify who is slacking off and who is contributing.

These meetings are a very powerful jab in butt. You don’t want to be the only person not contributing towards the overall Team goal.

Scrum Sprint

The work in agile development is broken down into 3 week “sprints”.

Sprints are a set period of time during which specific work has to be completed and made ready for review. Some sprints may be longer or shorter than 3 weeks.

Each sprint starts with a planning meeting where the project owner and the development team decide and agree upon exactly what work will be accomplished during the sprint.

This work is then broken down and assigned to Team members, where they estimate how long each task will take to complete.

In our sprint kickoff meetings each task is assigned. Then that Team member has 5 or 6 hours to break tasks down into individual action steps. These individual steps are given an hourly breakdown.

Later that day, the Team meets again to talk about tasks and review the deliverability of the sprint requirements.

Getting Work Done

Utilizing the scrum agile framework is a very effective method of getting projects done.

Obviously the most common use is within software development… but scrum and agile methodologies can be applied to any business in any industry.

After using the scrum framework for about 2 months now, it totally makes sense to me. And, this method has been very effective in delivering a working version of our software.

Recap of Scrum

    1. The project manager creates a list of priorities for the project. This is called a Product Backlog.
    2. At the Sprint start, the Team identifies a chunk of priorities from the project manager’s list. Then they decide how to implement those priorities.
    3. The Team has a certain amount of time (usually 3 weeks) to complete the work. This time period is called the Sprint.
    4. The Team meets each day (scrum meeting) to discuss progress and keep on track.
    5. The Scrum Master keeps the Team focused on delivery and goals.
    6. The Sprint ends with a sprint review and retrospective.
    7. The work completed during the sprint should be ready to ship… that is, it’s ready to be used / consumed by a customer or reviewed by a stakeholder.
    8. Then the next Sprint begins. A new set of priorities is identified and the work begins again.

Ensuring the Most Valuable Work is Complete

Using the agile methodology, the most important milestones are completed first. There is not room to dilly-dally on unimportant features.

The work is based on requirements, approvals and Team discussions. Less important features get pushed to the back.

Pair Programming

Another methodology in agile development is pair programming. This is a simple technique where two programmers work together at one computer.

One person writes the code, while the other reviews each line of code as it is typed—the two programmers switch roles frequently.

Pairing usually brings improved code, discipline and time management. The pair partner keeps them honest.

On our Team, we have only done this a handful of times, including a couple of days last week.

I’m intrigued with this method and would like to use it more, especially with front-end development.

Matter-of-fact, I think simple (and complex) websites could be designed and developed a lot faster with pair programming.

Pair programming is also an easy way to learn. Coding and other knowledge is easily passed between pairs as they work together. One can also pick up the techniques from the other.