3-underrated,-underutilized,-and-underappreciated-design/business-strategies

Which are all about optimizing your work and perspective of the world, at least I hope so.

Tian-Yuan Zhao

I’m going to start by saying that one of these is not only a design strategy but a business strategy. With that out of the way, let’s kick it off with the one that is the most controversial sounding shall we?

There is only one persona you’ll ever truly need.

I’m all about efficiency, effectiveness, and expediency when it comes to my work. What does this mean? It means minimizing wasteful actions, wasteful processes, wasteful thinking, etc and maximizing output, production, impact, etc. This is, why throughout my work as a human factors specialist — I’ve learned over the years that there’s really only 1 persona you’ll ever truly need to optimize your work. Now, this obviously sounds blasphemous at worst and clickbaity at best. Well, you’re right about the latter, but this controversial statement sure got you interested in reading what I’m about to share didn’t it? Anyway, the persona I’m referring to is:

Someone who’s passionate.

Someone who cares.

Someone who is profoundly affected by whatever problem you’re targeting and/or someone who thinks about improving their situation greatly.

Now, of course, you’re probably sitting there thinking — “isn’t that what we do when we come up with our personas already?” I’d say yes and no.

The kind of persona I’m talking about has a psychological trait that is unique to any/all personas you might be thinking of.

But before I explain what that trait is, let me go back to explaining what I mean by “optimal”. In this case, it’s about addressing this business goal — if you’re building a product/service that intends to last, if you intend to solve a problem in a scalable, sustainable, and systemic manner, and if you intend to solve important/major/universal challenges/problems in this world, then this is what I mean by ‘optimal’.

To elaborate a bit more — if your product/service is intended to address deep-seated issues of the world, then the kind of people who you need to target are these kinds of people.

And what are “these” kinds of people?

The kind of people who are actively seeking ways to better their status quo. The kind of people who love what they do for example — if you’re targeting working professionals. The kind of people who come up with life-hacks to improve their current situation. The kind of people who seek ways to better their present processes. These people are conscious about continuously improving whatever it is that they care about.

These people aren’t all that difficult to find I would argue, in fact, would be much easier to find than the ones who don’t care so much. Why? Because these people are go-getters, these people go out and network, these people make themselves present at places that can easily be reached. These people are superfans, they’re the padawans who are training to become a Jedi, they’re self-starters, etc.

As an example, here’s a case-study of a product I worked on called the Kleros Court with a company called Kleros. The persona I ultimately targeted is the following:

“Passionate legal practitioner” — by “passion”, I mean someone who loves what they do and is constantly/consistently seeking ways to better their work. How did I know that this person is “passionate”? I met most of them at a hackathon organized by a meetup group in Toronto called The Toronto LegalHackers. This hackathon infused futurism (with topics such as blockchain) with the current state of things w.r.t. legaltech. The individuals who were there were mostly legal practitioners studying at the nearby University of Toronto but cared enough to take a weekend out of their lives to improve their understanding of the current and future state of affairs w.r.t. their profession.

What is the takeaway here?

To find these people, instead of coffee shops, I would recommend the following instead:

  • Attend events where these people can be found — and by “events”, I mean meetup groups where these people are in higher concentration. If I were working on an enterprise product for example — I’d go to business events where these people can be found, but ones where they’re discussing the “Future of…” whatever business/technology vertical your product/service/company belongs in. The point is to target individuals who care about elevating their status quo, so events that would allow these individuals to do so would be the best of places.
  • Join in on online conversations where these people can be found — Reddit is a great one for example. I don’t use it much myself, to be honest, but Redditors are usually very passionate people I find given that they care enough to talk about whatever it is that they talk about online, share, upvote, and problem-solve together. Other ones that I think would have a high concentration of passionate individuals are Whatsapp groups, Slack groups, and/or Discord groups.
  • This one would be harder to do but if it fits — then organize a meetup group yourself or start an online community. This is a classic tactic a lot of major retailers do already, given that they have the resources to foster a community of beta testers. Building a community yourself comes with a whole host of challenges but could prove to be extremely rewarding if you’re truly able to and willing to make those who belong to it feel as though they’re a part of something larger than themselves and one where their voices truly matter and contribute to the betterment of whatever it is you’re building.

To sum it up, this persona is what I’d like to simply call the “Passionate Persona”. One thing to keep in mind is this — “passion” doesn’t just mean “love” or “care strongly/severely/deeply/widely/profoundly”. The word “passion” comes from the Greek word “pathos”, which interestingly enough means “to suffer”. Isn’t it funny or weird that “passion” which is synonyms to the words “love” and “fiery affection/affectation” actually means “to suffer”? Well, it actually makes a lot of sense if you think about it — there’s this old saying “love hurts” after all. But also, when you love someone or something very much if you don’t get it, it hurts, if you lose that person it hurts emotionally, spiritually, and to those who are profoundly passionate, even physically. People who are truly passionate actually suffer a lot and undergo a lot of it. The “Passionate Persona” is simply someone who suffers and because of this, they strive to no avail to change their status quo so as to move away from their suffering. This is why these personae are a perfect fit with the philosophy of Jobs-to-be-Done as said school of thought is all about the goal of addressing the needs of the “passionate persona”.

MECE, You-See, we all see why this will benefit you, right?

Digital product designers, UX Designers, Interaction Designers, etc have long taken the brunt of being told what they should or should not do by many people. One of which is “to have better/more business acumen”. I don’t disagree with this sentiment at all, in fact, I think compared to being told that we should all be coders for example, this is the kindest and most understandable of asks.

So what is one thing I think we as software-focused human factors specialists (as a catch-all term I’m going to use instead of being bogged down by the semantics of it all), we should adopt the MECE Principle/Method/Framework. Designers already do have a lot of frameworks that they can work with, but this is one such framework that isn’t taught to designers at all explicitly and therefore isn’t used as much as it should. Ever since I was taught it when I attended a Lean Six Sigma course offered by Deloitte back in my university days, I fell in love with it and have been using it as a way to optimize my work.

The MECE Principle as defined by Wikipedia is this:

Reference: https://igotanoffer.com/blogs/mckinsey-case-interview-blog/mece

It’s primarily used by a lot of strategy/management consultants within the Big 4 or 5 of the Consulting world, but I think should also be adopted by designers when it comes to defining the information architecture of a software application. Why? When you look at any/all award-winning applications out there, they already employ MECE. When you look at the navigation or menu of items, you’ll see that they all touch mutually-exclusive aspects of the application and are comprehensively exhaustive of whatever it is they want you to accomplish.

The way I see MECE applying to product design can differ depending on the stage of product you’re in:

  • As mentioned above, if you’re starting from scratch and you need an MVP or M-whatever-you-wanna-call-it-P (be it “Lovable” or otherwise) — MECE should be applied to figuring out the information architecture. This is so that you don’t confuse and frustrate your user from the get-go. This is so that you don’t make the user go “wait, I thought this page was about X, but this page is also about X?” and whatnot. However, it’s one thing to confound your user with features/functionalities that overlap with one another, it’s another to underwhelm your user with something incomplete or unfinished but to you might seem finished. Without using MECE, you won’t know what makes for a complete/comprehensive user experience.
  • If you already have a fully-fleshed out product that has been around for a while now such as any/all established medium-large sized tech company — then it really depends at this point. They can either apply it at a macroscopic-level vis-a-vis vertical and horizontal integration, or they can apply it at a microscopic level. LinkedIn recently released a feature allowing individuals to indicate whether their job is full-time, part-time, or otherwise. The problem, however, is that they failed to apply MECE. A lot of the options in that dropdown menu overlap with one another in terms of their connotations/denotations. They’re comprehensive alright, but not mutually-exclusive which creates confusion and frustration for the user.
  • Last but not least, regardless of what stage your company is at, MECE can be applied in a more well-rounded manner. Great products aren’t just great products, they’re also a great service around the product, they’re also great marketing for the product, it’s also other platforms/mediums that can provide the benefits of the product in a more versatile manner. As an example — Drop isn’t just a mobile app, but they’ve launched a browser extension as well recently. Drop however doesn’t have a web app, to which maybe they have it in their roadmap or maybe they’ve simply decided that they don’t need it. I would argue that ubiquity is an important aspect of creating a successful product/service/company. The more ubiquitous something is, the more it can-be/is used, the more it becomes integrated into people’s lives.

Others who’ve written about this are below:

The psychology behind business & technology.

Have you heard of the Startup/Entrepreneur Curve?

Have you heard of the Gartner Hype Cycle?

Do you know what they look like without scrolling down?

What if I told you that both of them looked very similar if you overlayed them on top of one another, pretty much a spitting image of one another.

What if I told you that there was another chart that would produce the same effect if it was overlayed on top of the aforementioned cycle and curve?

All 3 of these surprisingly, interestingly, and intriguingly explain something that astounded me when I came to this realization.

But before I tell you what that third chart is, I’m going to tell you why this matters — why does understanding the “psychology behind business & technology matter?”

If you don’t work at a “startup” (not all “startups” are the same, it’s a spectrum — there are early-stage bootstrapped startups all the way up-to-and-including pre-IPO companies with “scaleups” in-between it all), you may not think this matters — I would argue most companies ever since the early-to-mid 2000’s have wakened up to something. They all feel the profound need to be futurproofed — at least the Fortune 1000’s do. A lot of these companies have underwent “digital transformations”, created incubators, spun off companies, gobbled up others, and built out investment arms as a way to innovate so that they won’t be the next disruptee like Blockbuster. Therefore, “Innovation-Theatre” or not, most if not all of these companies have and are trying to adopt a startup mentality. So like it or not, if you are working at one of these companies or want to, you need to understand that this is the current reality, paradigm, or Zeitgeist.

If you don’t work in the technology industry, you may not think that this applies. But, there is a strong argument for the fact that all companies are tech companies. There’s also a strong argument that I’d like to make — that technology is the driving force and underlying underpinning of human society & civilization. Though it’s not just a personal argument, it’s one that anthropologists have already decided for all of us. Anthropologists study the history, culture, and growth & development of human society/civilization as a whole and they’ve defined our evolution in “ages”. Each “age” is defined by the foundational technology of their time, their paradigm, or Zeitgeist. We went from the “Stone Age” all the way up to and including the current Age of Information and moving towards the Age of Intelligence AKA the 4th Industrial Revolution.

Now with that out of the way — an understanding that technology has driven businesses to be what they are today, how can you apply this to your personal and professional as well as career development? Well first, I have an argument that technology or engineering may be the foundation of human society/civilization and business or economics may be the intermediary step, and that the environment by which our engineering/economics has an effect on as well as the environments our engineering/economics affects — that the psychology of it all can help you better orient yourself in all of this madness.

I talk about my perspective on Engineering > Economics > Environment more here if you’re interested:

Without further ado, what is this third chart? It’s called… the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

This psychological effect can help to explain the following:

  • On the negative end of the spectrum: this helps to explain why we hype up new technologies as well as help to explain why companies do “innovation theatre” from a first-principles level. The reason is that we are overconfident: whenever a new technology and especially one that is exponential in nature is introduced to the world, we hype it up. Most of the people who do the hyping aren’t even the technologists who created the technology, they’re tech journalists which is why Gavin Belson makes fun of them in Silicon Valley. This is why we pretend to innovate, we parade innovation, we put it on display so as to puff up our chests, maintain high stock value, keep shareholders/stakeholders happy, and keep morale high.
  • On the positive end of the spectrum: this helps to explain something that is underappreciated — that there are signals throughout all of this noise. Depending on the people behind the technology and business, you can tell what is noise vs. signal. It’s more about the people at this point — if the person or people behind the technology is further along in the Dunning-Kruger Effect, then that means if they’re manning the helm of X technology or Y company, then that technology or company must be a signal. If they’re earlier in the curve, then there must be noise there. You’ll be able to tell usually if/when you look at the pioneers, vanguards, and trailblazers of whatever new trend/topic/technology. The reason is that they’ve been deep in the trenches ever since the beginning. Soldiers tell the real story of war, not the generals, sergeants, or lieutenants.
  • Most people look at the hype and theatre and make quick snappy decisions such as “there must be no value there”. Most people look at the hype and theatre and just say “this technology is useless” or “this company is bullshit”. The problem with this thinking is that it’s very juvenile, immature, and foolish — the world isn’t black or white. Every company has a mix of people who sit at varying points of the Dunning-Kruger curve. Some companies, unfortunately, have leaders who are earlier in the curve but have employees who are further along to the right of it — this creates toxicity. Some companies have leaders who are later in the curve but have employees who are earlier, which may lead to “restructuring” (for better or for worse) in these companies. If your company has leaders and employees who are mostly on the right side of the Dunning-Kruger Effect then you’ve got a winning company.

This is why I argue regardless — you need to futureproof yourself, everything has signals and noise in this world. A huge trend that is occurring already and recently is that a lot of people are waking up to this — which is why enrollment at bootcamps that teach digital skills is growing year by year. But skills that lie anywhere within the Venn Diagram of the “Digital Trinity” as I like to call it — Data, Design, and Development aren’t the only ones that matter (Data (Science/Analytics/Engineering Digital-Product Design or UX/UI/IX Digital-Product Development and their intersectionalities such as Front-End Dev, Back-End Dev, and Product Management).

It’s the ones that lie at the intersection of the “Computing Trinity” that also matter — Cognitive Connected Distributed Computing — AI, IoT, and Blockchain — which constitute the 4th Industrial Revolution. This Dunning-Kruger Effect explains many things — that we shouldn’t be overconfident but we shouldn’t be ignorant and dismissive either of the important things out there. We should seek the signals through the noise instead of only listening to the noise and making the quick snappy decision that all of it is not worth it. Here’s one way to keep up to date with & stay on top of current/future topics:

To wrap all of this up — all of this is to say “signals” matter more than “noise” (of course, but sometimes the most obvious things are the least obvious because of the mental heuristics our brains love to make). The above 2 strategies of the “Passionate Persona” and“MECE” are both signal-seeking strategies at the end of the day. Don’t dismiss exponential technologies and don’t dismiss the need to innovate within your company. Increase your knowledge of things so as to not sit atop Mount Stupid and be a Hype-beast with rose-coloured glasses in front of your eyes. Seek to be and seek to be with those who will get you to be at the peak and plateau of sustainability and thus productivity. That’s what I’m doing and that’s what I’m constantly/consistently trying to do.

Another individual — David Merriman who’s made the connection to all 3 of these curves in a more in-depth fashion is below:

My name’s Tian Zhao and I’m a young professional with a background in industrial/systems/human-factors engineering from the University of Toronto who’s deeply and widely passionate about solving problems in a scalable, sustainable, and systematic manner.

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