Preaching Good UX: Joe Natoli

By: Yadira Y. Caro

User interface (UI) and User Experience (UX) are popular terms in the design and product industry. UI and UX, oftentimes tied together, are commonly seen as secret ingredients you add to a product to “make it pretty.”  Oftentimes, people don’t really quite get them. Joe Natoli has made it his mission to educate people on what UI and UX are really all about, calling himself a UX evangelist.

Through online courses, several articles, his podcast Making UX Work, and various books, Joe wants to make sure people know UI/UX are not a thing you add, but processes to ensure user satisfaction and usability. These do not only apply to products and software; UI and UX principles can be applied to any area of customer service.

I asked Joe about misconceptions of UI and UX, his career and resources to learn more.

You are an expert in UI/UX, but how do you describe what you do?

First, I’ve never been comfortable with the tile of “expert.” I don’t have any magic powers, and I am not the smartest guy in the room. What I do have is close to three decades of experience working with and learning from unique people in unique, challenging situations. Do anything long enough and you learn a whole lot about what works and what doesn’t.

I do, however, believe that one of my strengths is the ability to simplify and clarify what UX and Design really is, and how people and organizations can make those things their allies, integrate that thinking into everything they do. I’m able to make it real, understandable and applicable for them, cut through the ego-driven jargon and artifice that often passes for UX knowledge or expertise.

For clients, I explain that UX isn’t a discrete activity, a specific part or step in the software development process — it’s the entire process. User experiences are the result of everything everybody does, from the people requesting features and functionality to those who decide whether or not those things are possible to those who design and build.

UX is created regardless of whether or not there are UX or UI designers on staff; it’s either intentional or unintentional. And when it’s unintentional, it’s usually bad. So I refer to UX as a value loop, a cycle where both parties have to be satisfied. Good UX delivers value to the people who use a product, and when that happens, value should come back to the organization as well.

What are some misconceptions about UI/UX?

That it’s a step in the process, something that we “do” at specific points in the product design and development process.

People believe that it’s limited to the product itself, which it isn’t. UX is created from every interaction a user or customer has with your organization, which includes things like how customer service answers the phone or responds to social media messages. How easy or hard it is to find self-help information on the corporate website. How long someone has to wait on hold when they call a help line, hearing “your call is very important to us….” every 5 minutes.

People also believe that it’s a “magic bullet” of some kind, that if you designate people and activities as UX or UI, then you can check the box. But more often than not, bad UX is the result of the decisions people make inside an organization, both within and outside the product team. It can be the result of teams or individuals working in silos, not truly collaborating, sharing expertise, or communicating well. Political battles, fear and morale issues that lead to poor decision making. Company cultures where the urgent always trumps the truly important.

Those activities are outside what we think of as “UX” or product use, but they have massive impact in whether or not a user experience is positive or negative.

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What has been one of your greatest challenges and how did you tackle it? 

Dealing with imposter syndrome, which I still do, even though I am in a situation where I can pick and choose what work I take on from global-sized organizations. Even though they come to me, and never question my rates. Even though I have 120,000 students worldwide taking my courses.

I say all that not to impress you or anyone else; I say it because I want everyone reading this to understand that no matter how much you achieve, you cannot expect your fear or self-doubt to suddenly disappear. That’s an unreasonable, unrealistic expectation. So instead of waiting to be fearless, you have to make peace with that fear and go forward anyway.

Part of that is this idea that we have to be 100% original, which also isn’t possible. I think what we all do is to take the gifts other people have given us, and adapt, reimagine and reinterpret them in some way that’s uniquely ours. You may be saying or teaching the same things someone else is, but you’re doing that in a way that only you can.

So you have to learn to trust your voice, your approach, to trust in the fact that what you’re doing has merit. Otherwise you’ll never start.

So taking that big step forward — whether it’s speaking up in a team meeting or taking a risk on a new interactive feature or starting your own business — isn’t a matter of being fearless. It’s a matter of feeling more fear than you know what to do with, but going forward anyway.

What is the main takeaway you want people to have from your courses or your book? 

That UX is not something you do with your hands — it’s the result of how you use what’s between your ears.

I believe that far too much of the “advice” people get on design and UX is unrealistic; it sounds great on paper, but it fails miserably when put into practice in the real world. The one where most businesspeople don’t care about best practices and principles. The one where results — were we get the outcome we’re after — is the only thing that matters.

I think most processes and tools and methods people on my side of the fence promote and suggest are too complex, too rigid and require a perfect-world scenario where you always have enough time, budget, people and executive approval.  So everything I do is meant to be an antidote to that: things that work in the messy reality we all work in.

Can you recommend a few resources (books, websites, etc.) which have helped you and could help others in the field, or who want to learn more? 

Sure. Of course, I have to include a few of my own, because the feedback I get daily from designers, UXers and developers tell me they’re useful and helpful:

Think First, my latest book: I wrote this book to simplify and demystify a great deal of what it really means to apply UX to product development, and what you really need to consider when working with clients and teams. The reason I wrote it was because I got angry — so much of what’s out there talks waaaaay over people’s heads and insists on complex processes, tools, and methods to “properly” practice UX. I think that’s bullshit, so I wrote a book explaining why (and what to do instead).

Making UX Work Podcast: I interview everyday UXers (no rock stars) about what they do every day, how they do it and the challenges they face.

Give Good UX Company of Friends: This is my private Facebook Group. With over 6,000 members, you can learn an awful lot from the good, generous folks there (and I answer questions as well, live and in posts):

Website, Blog + FREE eBooks: I do my best to write articles, create videos and provide free e-books to answer the questions I get from people in the field every day.

Online UX TrainingThese are UX training courses on my own platform.

Udemy UX Video Courses: These are UX training courses on Udemy.

Next, I believe every person related to product development, design or UX in any way should absolutely read the following books cover to cover:

The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, by Alan Cooper; Don’t Make Me Think, by Steve Krug, The Design of Everyday Things, by Dr. Don Norman, The Cluetrain Manifesto (various authors) and Universal Principles of Design (various authors).

Do you have questions, feedback or suggestions of people to interview? Contact me!

Breaking stereotypes and talking techie: Interview with Nicole Gilbride

By: Yadira Y. Caro

Nicole Gilbride hates BBQs. I am not referring to the food (which is very popular in her home state of Tennessee), but to the awkward social gatherings around a friend’s grill or fire pit where new acquaintances, in an effort to break the ice, ask “What do you do?” She has great pride in her job as Strategic Planning and Communication Specialist at the Department of Veteran Affairs’ Office of Information and Technology; however, the problem lies in the reactions she gets when she replies: from sneering looks of people who think she is another lazy federal employee to questions about status of personal VA claims.

Fortunately, I did not meet Nicole at a BBQ but at a training summit for generation X and Y federal employees where she gave a talk and mentoring sessions to young people on how to thrive in the workplace. I was curious to know more about her role as a Washington insider and how she is able to bridge the communication and technology worlds.

Note: The interview has been edited for content and space.

Can you describe what you do?

I am the lead for the business planning operations in our Project Management division under our Product Development organization, which is VA’s software development organization. We handle VA IT software requests, like creating software solutions to help veterans schedule appointments online or schedule them on an iPad, or we develop systems to track prescription drug iterations to make sure people are not abusing substances. Those type of business solutions allow VA’s healthcare and benefit staff to provide world class engagement with Veterans, and they need IT solutions to effectively manage care for Veterans.

Admittedly, I am not a techie. I am in a very technical organization and in a lot of a ways I serve as a translator. I work to help translate to people who are on the ground building code and overseeing the IT projects, I help to translate the functions that they are developing and the services we are providing into words that normal people can understand. I make sure that I can explain what we do in a way that my grandma can understand. I do a multitude of other things: working strategic plans, prioritizing the assignment of our IT resources, but the communications part is probably 50 percent of my job, and it involves all kinds of comms. We do internal messaging within our organization and within VA and we do external messaging with the media, collaborating with Veteran Service Organizations, congressional engagements, video interviews, blog posts… There are very few briefings or memos that come out of Project Management that I have not seen or impacted. That’s sort of what I do.

You have a lot of responsibilities.

Yes (laughs). It’s a full day, it’s very impactful and it’s important. It’s challenging because I think communications is part of everyone’s job but we do have a lot of very technical subject matter experts that are not naturally communicators. One of the challenges in my job is “do I give them a fish or do I teach them how to fish?” “Do I do things for them or do I show them how they can do it better?” It’s a challenge.

Getting into the specifics of the technology part, as you mention you are a technology translator. From translating the user needs to the techies, how difficult is it not having a technical background? How do you learn to address that?

For me personally how did I learn to become savvy enough to be active in conversations about technology, honestly was just with time. I’m constantly researching what I need to research and when in doubt, I am constantly reminding my team “have you Googled this first?” because they’ll come to me with questions like “what is DevOps,” “what is the Internet of Things,” “what’s Scrum,” “what’s Agile?” When they do that I ask “did you consult Google?” There are so many resources available online that can at least help you… I either consult the Internet or I ask my peers, and part of that is overcoming your fear of asking people.

The other part that you are talking about is what I would say is the requirements side, when the customer comes in and says “we want a shelter” but most of the time they don’t say “we want a shelter,” they say “we want a house and we want it to have tin roof, we want to have 38 windows, this is exactly what we want” and not realizing that maybe there is a better solution. I personally think its one of the most challenging areas for IT systems. Requirements are usually the thing that kills you. It manifests itself by either schedule delays or cost overruns. There has to be a line, you have to have things that go above and below the line. If you keep to your schedule or keep to your budget, it will help you decide where that line is.

In that part of the requirements, do you think the problem is the customer does not know what they want and they are having trouble communicating it? Or do you think is the problem is on whoever capturing those requirements?

I think it’s all of those things and it’s more things. If you ask two people what they want to get from point A to point B, what you would get as a response, even if they are the same business customer, is different. What the business customer wants is constantly evolving. It’s a challenge and I don’t think it’s a just communications challenge either.

In the other part of your job, the combination if internal and external communications, what are some of the challenges you have?

Our biggest problem internally with communications is really that people want a customized solution for them which is inherently impossible. The challenge is finding something that makes the most people happy and figuring out that each organization is so different. If you’ve got nurses and doctors running around with other clinicians, sending them an email twice a week with your message is not a good way to tell them that there is a new system coming out, that there is an employee survey coming out. Most doctors spend more (time) on their charts than they do on their email inbox. For every doctor out there they also have a lot of admin staff who do spend time on their computer. An all hands message in an email may work for those folks but it’s not going to reach the doctors and nurses. Finding ways to customize solutions for different audiences is a challenge.

On the IT realm (the challenge) is the level of technical detail in the messaging. We have a lot of very tech savvy people but for every one of them we have another person who is an admin staff, who does not have a technical background, a budget person, an HR person, whatever the case may be. Finding ways to balance, simplify our messaging for a general audience and keep it engaging enough that technical folks are not bored or dismissive of the messaging is a challenge.

Why did you decide to go into government work?

As a young person I went through the “I want to be a ballerina” phase. Then around 10 or so I entered the “I want to be President phase.” As a young child, I always had strong verbal skills. I could sit at the table with adults and negotiate with them. I could take on a debate. Eventually as I got to be an adult I started to get more into politics and that sort of led me to where I am today I’d say. In college I pursued an internship on the Hill which ended up being a communications internship with the former Speaker of the House. When I did that communications internship it opened a door for me.

I wanted to help improve our country and so I recognized that communications is sort of the glue that holds everything together. I see a lot of great ideas don’t take root, don’t spread, don’t get shared, and communication could help spread and share great ideas. I think I kind of had an epiphany of “I really want to do communications for a job”And I have a family that has a legacy of public (service), one of my grandmothers worked for the VA 50 years ago. My aunt works for the VA, I’ve got a lot of family members who have worked for various state, local government organizations; military service is throughout my family. I was always raised to believe that I could have a positive impact and that lead me to public service as a career.

For those people who insist on working in government because, as yourself, they feel they can make a difference, what skills in the communications field they should have or learn from?

Accolades for being committed to joining, I would tell you it took me probably close to seven years to finally get in. Navigating USAJobs is not for the faint of heart (laughs).

On the skill standpoint, I think the biggest communication skill is actually networking. Having someone who can actually write effectively is wonderful. Having someone who knows abut graphics and visuals and branding is great. Having somebody who has experience on camera or presenting to large audiences, all these things are great, they are important skill sets and by all means, put them on a resume, but the one thing that you can’t really put on a resume and will make or break a communications employee from my standpoint, is the ability to make connections with people and network. I’m not talking about networking in the sense we normally think of with LinkedIn networking or speed networking, but creating and cultivating really meaningful connections.

For most people (in communications positions) it’s a multi-hat situation where you are doing various forms of communications and having those connections within your department, within your agency, with various staff offices, and with your peer group will make or break you.

I would also say an important thing for the future of communicators will be the ability to communicate by leveraging technology. Twenty years ago if you could write you could write. Today you need to be able to write to different sources. How do you turn a two page blog article into a Tweet? It’s a skill. You have to learn to transform something that is so content heavy into something so short and impactful. Being able to not only use current technology, but to be on the cutting edge and to show willingness to continue to learn and stay ahead of the curve. That is very critical I think.

Follow Nicole Gilbride on Twitter @NicoleGilbride

Follow the author @yadicarocaro

Marketing Puerto Rico: Interview with Alan Taveras

By: Yadira Y. Caro

In recent weeks, news about Puerto Rico and its deepening economic crisis have occupied the attention of major U.S. publications: in sum, things are so bad everyone seems to be leaving the Island. I am one those Puerto Ricans who left (over a decade ago) but am also striving to find the silver lining. This is why when I heard the interview of Alan Taveras on a local podcast  I had to find out more about his initiative to promote Puerto Rican businesses.

Instead of planning their escape from the Puerto Rico, Alan and his brother Nestor Guarien Taveras not only stayed but also saw an opportunity to target the diaspora while promoting local products through Brands of Puerto Rico. This virtual marketplace or as Alan calls it “the Amazon of Puerto Rican products” started a year ago.

The Taveras brothers, who have MBAs and attended the Founder Institute, were already building success with their Très Epic agency, a programming firm which provides services to advertising agencies in Puerto Rico. These agencies though, were big international brands.

Based on their own experience abroad (Guarien studied at Boston University while Alan went to Argentina’s University of Palermo), they saw there were consumers eager to get products from home and decided to launch the start up which has gained traction through the combination of traditional and digital marketing.

During a visit to their offices in Puerto Rico, I spoke with Alan about the importance of branding and advertising. We started the conversation talking about the origins of Brands of Puerto Rico.

Note: The interview has been edited for space.

How did you started with Brands Of?

It was early March or the last days of February of 2014, it was the first time the bonds of Puerto Rico were downgraded to junk and the diaspora groups and every newspaper were talking about how (messed up) we were or how many people left Puerto Rico. (My brother and I) used to take one Friday each month to just throw ideas on the board like what type of startup we can do, because Très Epic was made for us to have capital to live and to invest in our ideas. That was the mission from the start. One day my brother was reading out loud an article which  said monthly roughly 3,000 Puerto Ricans were leaving on those days to the states, mainly Florida as always. A lot of people were alarmed on this, it was like a crisis, my Facebook newsfeed was depressing to say the least.

We started to look at that as an opportunity because since we were little, everyone would tell us Puerto Rico is a small market, entrepreneurs will never make it here and that’s why the big companies here are the distributors, because there is no space to create something new. So we started looking at that, (and also) we came across the fact that almost 5 million of people from Puerto Rico were living in the states. Suddenly it is an appealing market that nobody was thinking about. Everyone was focusing on how bad it was, but for us it was a good sign.

We started to research on local brands. There are a lot of people doing cool things in Puerto Rico, no one knows about them and they don’t have online presence. It was like connecting the dots. We decided to make a marketplace for local entrepreneurs to sell to that diaspora.

In terms of your marketing mindset, did you acquire that thanks to the Founder Institute?

Founder Institute is really really tough on first, build the market. For example, with Brands of Puerto Rico we did not write a line of code until we had like a thousand followers on Facebook. So first, build that market and if it gets traction, build the product. That helped us create this fast and at really low cost.

How did you reach out to the people in the diaspora?

I don’t know if its something that is happening right now or if our idea had the prefect timing but suddenly the idea got a great response. (Local TV channel) WAPA featured us, we got an interview with CNN en español… It’s mostly organic, we have not an invested in marketing, I have to be honest on that. We have a saying here ‘try until you get it’ so every day we called the newspapers, every TV channel, ‘interview us, interview us’ until they said yes. Now what we do is invest a little bit and it is really targeted; we do digital marketing which is our forte, our knowledge. For example, I target campaigns to people in Orlando, I target campaigns to people in Brooklyn, New York and I can maximize the performance of my dollar to get to those people.

Also our biggest, biggest, biggest marketing weapon is word of mouth. If your cousin bought it in New York and he told all of his friends, it spreads.

In term of the overall idea, during the interview with the podcast you were wondering why it did not occurred to anyone before.

It’s a pretty simple concept. A lot of people tell me, ‘you are doing such innovative stuff’ but I don’t find that we are this breakthrough technology; its e-commerce. E-commerce has been here for decades. For me it’s a pretty simple idea to sell Puerto Rican brands to people from Puerto Rico outside of Puerto Rico.

Perhaps is the mentality that when it comes to producing something in the Island, people think just about the local market and they don’t really think in terms of outside markets.

Maybe it was that. Maybe it was the influence my brother and I had studying abroad that we see the world as a marketplace and not just Puerto Rico.

In term of finding the products locally and developing those relationships with local vendors, how do you do that?

In the first days it was almost impossible: imagine some kid coming to you telling that he is going to build a platform, it’s not even built, going to let you sell stuff for free and only charge you in transactions. We had a database of 300 brands and only 30 brands on our launch on July 11 (of 2014). Now because of the hype of the PR (public relations) people come to us, but in the first months we took a lot of no’s: ‘Are you crazy?’, ‘You are going to sell on the Internet?.’

It’s been real fun because we have a lot of people that work on agriculture, that don’t have technology knowledge and we even sit down with them and open a Paypal account. I opened Paypal accounts for Antojitos de Mango, (the owner) is like 80 years old but for me he is the one of the best entrepreneurs I’ve ever known. He has so much knowledge, always with a smile in his face. Not everyone has this opportunity to learn a lot from the people who have been doing this their whole lives.

In regards of what you are doing now, is there some sort of model that you look up to in other countries that’s doing this as well?

Right now it’s a cool moment for us as a company. Brands of Puerto Rico is one year old and thanks to everything that has happened and the trust that these brands have put in us, we are starting to grow, not only to grow on the amount of companies we have in Puerto Rico, but we as a company are starting to expand to other markets.

We are about to launch Brands of Argentina, and Brands of Nicaragua. From my connections in Argentina, we are in conversation with some venture capitalists who are interested in putting money on the company for us to start building franchises on every market. We are going to implement what we learned here in this whole year.

What are your particular goals for Brands of Puerto Rico?

For Brands of Puerto Rico and for Brands of -I am starting to think as the Brands of concept and not just Brands of Puerto Rico,- is to create the biggest quality oriented catalogs of brands and products of Latin America, and supply to that diaspora in the United States. Basically show the world that not everything is big brands in multinational companies, that good things are made by people who work in modest ways and they do deserve a chance. I think Brands of and our platform is a tool to give them the chance, that equal plane level field. For example, if you want a t-shirt you can buy Sotomayor which is local entrepreneur instead of going to Pac Sun in a mall.

How many brands do you have?

I have 80, I counted 2 weeks ago, but we have a pipeline. Let me tell you the process: you (as company) learn from us and we learn about you. We have a formal phone call or email and you come here to our offices with the product. We do the screening to see if it’s good quality, if it’s local brand, if that person is registered in the government, that is really important. We do a photo shoot free of cost for that brand and those photos, once they are properly edited, are uploaded to our e-commerce platform. We do a blog post, we do a social media post. Our business model is transaction based, we make 20% of each transaction.

If they are not registered, do you help them?

We help them with everything. We’ve done logos for people. A lot of people tell me ‘you are not supposed to that.’ If they don’t have a standard they are not going to sell, so it’s really important for me personally and for the company to make these entrepreneurs think and act upon their brand. A product is a product until you build a brand around it.

Is that something often people forget, to market their brand?

I’ve talked to so many entrepreneurs in the last year, I learned that different to how we think, people out there think the product is the star. For me, because I studied Advertising and then in Business I concentrated in Marketing, for me what is the star is the brand. You can sell this pen, anything, if you have a brand around it, if your communication is good, if your look is good. I think like that. But I learned most entrepreneurs here in Puerto Rico don’t give a (crap) about it. We are trying to teach people that the brand is really important and how you communicate, how you do advertising, is as important as a product.

Would you recommend people to study advertising?

I will recommend studying advertising not necessarily to work on advertising. It helps you communicate better. You can be an accountant, you can be a lawyer, you can be anything, but advertising helps you sell and communicate better and have a presence that is appealing to the market. If you are looking for a date, if you are trying to sell something, if you are trying to get out of trouble, if you communicate good, Is effective.

I think it’s important the way you communicate things.

Follow Brands of Puerto Rico on Twitter @brandsofpr or email Alan at info@brandsofpuertorico.com

Follow the author @yadicarocaro