Customer Experience and Design

Leveraging UX/UI To Improve Private Equity Outcomes

private equity technology podcast

Had a chance to chat at length with Chris Bernard, director of well-known Chicago digital design agency Truth Labs (now known as Perficient Digital), on the current state of UX/UI and its ability to improve to private equity outcomes. Chris has been directing the Truth team for about a year, tasked with running and growing the organization. What follows are some of the highlights from our chat. Listen to the full conversation on iTunes, Google Play, PlayerFM, SoundCloud, or below.

 

 

Alex Agran:

Excited to have Chris here today, touching on a subject that I’m passionate about, which is visual design and user experience. I think it’s super important in software applications, both ones that are used internally by employees and ones that are customer facing. When the business you own requires its employees or customers to spend a significant amount of their time of the day interacting with it, whether it’s a web app, a mobile app, something on a tablet, delivering a pleasurable, intuitive user experience is key. As I think it’s called in the design world, the consumerization of IT. When we go home at night or in the morning or during work and we’re using all these pleasurable consumer apps like Facebook and Twitter, when we then are forced to use archaic web applications that we sit in all day long and they’re not intuitive, they’re not productive, they’re not tuned to what we need to do to most efficiently work through our day, that creates unhappy employees. That creates unhappy customers. Fixing that is key in any software application. Chris is here today to talk about it. Let’s get into it.

Consumerization of IT. I just described it. How does that affect your approach to design, how Truth thinks about design, and approaches it when talking to clients?

Chris Bernard:

I think the consumerization of IT is probably nothing new, but it’s something that every business has to deal with right now, and there’s a couple of trends that we’ve seen over the years that really impact that. Probably the biggest trend it impacts is bring your own device to work policies for the fact that you and I both have iPhones. You have Outlook on your iPhone. You check corporate email on your iPhone. You’re using a personal consumer asset that you purchased, and you’re using it for business functions to help you do your job. That means that the experiences that we have in the enterprise for a business we work at are comingled with these experiences we have that are personal and consumer driven. Consumerization of IT means we have this dichotomy where we have these beautiful, wonderful experiences that are designed for us, and then we have to juxtapose them against—a lot of applications in the enterprise, quite frankly, were written 15 years ago for a completely different technical environment. Right now, what’s happened is, there’s a whole bunch of upstarts in the world that compete with these enterprise solutions that are taking those tenets of good application design that we see in the consumer realm and bringing them into the enterprise. That means if you’re a company that has a legacy software base that’s 15 years old and you really haven’t updated it, you may have wonderful margins, you may have great market share, but you may have that new competitor that comes along that does 60%, 80% of what your tool does for 20% of the cost, and you have a choice at that point. You can compete with that new entrant on your own terms, or you can ride out the existing business as long as you can. But sooner or later, your customers are going to make a choice.

Alex Agran:

Employees, too.

Chris Bernard:

Employees, too. Right now, employees don’t always have a choice. That was always the joke about enterprise software. You don’t have a choice. You have to use it. In certain markets and realms, if it’s a competitive market, people do have a choice. They can go work somewhere else where it’s more pleasurable to work and interface with the tools and the technology. Increasingly, we’ve seen employees do that all the time. It becomes a retention risk, and it becomes a training risk, too. We have a lot of software that’s not architected very well, and sometimes you may bring in a new workforce to work on software, and you may have a six-month training period. If you can only retain those people for 12 months, that’s a pretty expensive proposition to maintain that software.

Alex Agran:

When you’re redesigning an enterprise software application, customer facing, employee facing, you’re looking for people that have that user experience background as opposed to that marketing website brand background.

Chris Bernard:

Typically, yes, and this isn’t to diminish the value that a digital marketing firm brings to the—

Alex Agran:

It seems like a different—

Chris Bernard:

I would say it’s a different service.

Alex Agran:

Service, yeah.

Chris Bernard:

What we’re looking for when we bring a designer to the table is someone who has a deep user experience background. That means they understand a design process. It means they have a set of skills around visual design, communication design, interaction design, user experience, creating some of the deliverables that we might use to communicate some of those principles to a client. We typically want them to understand or have worked with teams that have the responsibility of implementing that solution and that design. We have to make sure what we create is feasible or possible. We also have to make sure that if we propose something that is difficult or expensive, that we can evaluate that properly and make sure that the investment is worthwhile. There may be cases where we have a piece of software that performs very slowly or there are certain functions we can’t do because there’s a batch data pull that has to occur at midnight in the data center. Some of the proposals we may make from a design perspective may require a technical re-architecture of those solutions, and we need to make sure that we have all the pieces in place so that we can sell that to the client, and so they can understand the value of it, too.

Alex Agran:

Something we probably should have done up at the top, you mentioned it a little bit ago. Digital. When you say digital level set, what are we talking about when we say digital?

Chris Bernard:

I think the best way to define digital is, I’m going to put some words and grammar around it, because it’s such a vague word, and people use it differently. You hear a word pretty commonly, especially in the IT industry today called the digital transformation.

Alex Agran:

Yeah. One of my favorite phrases.

Chris Bernard:

From a design perspective, when we talk about digital, we’re really talking about what are application experiences are going to look like on a device. What are they going to look like on a screen? What are they going to look like on a tablet? Sometimes there are physical constraints that we need to think about, too. In the enterprise, I may be building an application that’s on a tablet that’s used on a shop floor. What if that person needs to wear gloves? What if there are audible cues I want to have in that application, but they can’t hear because it’s going to be too loud on the floor? There are these physical characteristics that we need to be accountable for as well.

Alex Agran:

Let’s talk about your process. The process of applying visual design and user experience through an application. What are the steps in the process? And maybe a little bit about each of those steps.

Chris Bernard:

We believe in an agile project driven process. It’s very fashionable in the software world to focus on agile development techniques. Agile is great if you know what you want to build. What we focus on in our design process is an up-front set of activities before we would go into more of an agile development process. That begins with a discovery process. A discovery process usually deviates from technical processes in that I want to hear from the experts, and I want to hear from the people that know their customers, but I also really want to see and observe what the end user needs to use with an application. That’s frequently because people will not communicate verbally to me what they feel about something or what they like about something. You often need to get out there and actually observe them using it. In some cases, if I’m building a new product or tool, I need to develop a prototype and I need to get out there with them and see how they interact with that tool. We spend a lot of time doing that, and we also spend a lot of time using an adapted version of a process that’s commonly called the design sprint, or that we’ve seen a lot in the venture capital world as pioneered by Google Ventures, called the Google Sprint, where we will get all stakeholders in a room for a week and go through a very abbreviated, focused design process where we will actually become knowledgeable about the problem that we’re solving. We’ll build a map for that process. We will then do sketching exercises to build solutions for that, and then we’ll actually go out and prototype and test those solutions in a week to just get a feel for where the design process should go.

Alex Agran:

When you say prototype, what do you mean when you say prototype?

Chris Bernard:

Prototype can mean a lot of different things. A prototype can be as simple as a bunch of note cards on a table with things that I’ve sketched, that I walk people through. It can be using a software solution like inVision. It can present what looks like a real application that someone can test and go through, all the way to something that I would call a very high-fidelity prototype, which looks like a physical product that I can put in people’s hands. It looks like an app that I can put on a device. It looks like a real finished app that people can use.

We typically try to bring things digital quickly, and we’re very fortunate that the technology right now lets us move very quickly. We can put what I would call interactive pre-visualized application experience in front of somebody very quickly. Sometimes it’s a week. Sometimes it’s two weeks. A core part of process is going through that discovery and bringing a user research component where we observe, and we interact directly with the end user versus just hearing from stakeholders. Going into that sprint process, and doing some kind of small validation to say, this is what we all agree we think the problem is. These are the places we can explore to solve it, and here’s a little bit of feedback from users that validates we’re on the right path. We typically wrap that up in a discovery process. If it’s project driven, that process can be anywhere from three days to a week. If it’s more expansive, that process can take anywhere from two to six weeks.

We then move into what we would call an information design process, and that information design process is where we would actually start mapping out what the architecture and the flow through an application would look like. We would start articulating the components that might need to be on a screen for an application or as part of a flow. At the end of that process, we get pretty detailed. Not every design process does this, but we will pretty much show you in almost like a storyboard for a movie, this is what the application’s going to look like. This is how people are going to flow through it. Here’s where everything’s going to be in that application.

Alex Agran:

Discovery, then information design. What’s next?

Chris Bernard:

At that point, we would actually start building what the application would look like in its final form. For us, I used the analogy before that we almost look like a pre-visualization for a movie or a storyboard. I may have the application pretty much sketched out in terms of functions or modules or where things are going to be, but then we need to go through a visual design process for the application. We need to create any assets that might be required for the applications. Often, a part of our process, especially, or even with enterprise applications is, we operate under a philosophy of show, not tell. We need to do a lot of computational visualizations that might be part of the applications for dashboards, and we actually go through the process of designing all those things. In the case of enterprise applications or where it’s dashboards or it’s data, really what we’re doing is information and charting design. We’re making sure that the technology platform can support everything that we want in that process. Typically, at the end of that process for us, especially when it’s new product development, I have my own engineering team, and we’ve developed a framework to rapidly prototype what these experiences and applications would look like. Typically for us, we will build a prototype that we can give to a sales force or to a user research team to go out into the field and get feedback on the product. We use that prototype as a foundation for the engineering team that actually begins developing the product itself.

Alex Agran:

The deliverables of the process, it’s the final visual design, maybe a working prototype.

Chris Bernard:

Usually the final visual elements we will put in what we call a living style guide. We will hand over all the assets, but we will also—

Alex Agran:

Assets being?

Chris Bernard:

It might be the Photoshop files. It might be the inVision prototype.

Alex Agran:

Pictures, graphics, drawing, illustrations.

Chris Bernard:

It might be a technology list of all the UI frameworks we recommend that they use.

Alex Agran:

Right. JavaScript, CSS, animations.

Chris Bernard:

Yeah. We could give all that. We sometimes give a prototype. Sometimes the prototype has code that we would leverage for the final product. Sometimes it doesn’t. It just depends on the time table for the product for what we do.

Alex Agran:

If you’re in charge of a private equity firm, maybe you’re an operating partner overseeing some of the portfolio companies, you’ve identified an enterprise system that needs help visually, experientially, what’s your recommendation? This might be a little self-serving because you guys do work on behalf of private equity companies for their portfolio companies in this regard. How are you setting things up, either at the private equity level, in the operating group, to spread this across all the different portfolio companies? Or is it an individual basis, one-by-one, company by company? How are you handling improving the design, the experience of the applications that are running your portfolio companies?

Chris Bernard:

That is kind of a self-serving question, but I’ll do my best to answer it. I’ll also tell you what we do now, and what I think private equity companies could do in the future, too, and where they could steal some inspiration from some other folks. It’s probably pretty difficult to go higher and land your own design team in that organization. It’s certainly worth trying, but typically, the culture might not be in place to really sustain that and mature it. In that case, probably your best bet is working with an outside partner to kickstart.

I think there are some areas where private equity can draw inspiration from, and that’s primarily the venture capital world. Venture capitalists have often had an entrepreneur in residence in their firms, and more recently over the past three to four years, you’ve also seen a designer in residence, and you’ve seen these groups build design groups in-house that consult with all their portfolio companies. I think it’s an idea with a lot of potential for private equity firms to build their own design groups that can oversee and overlook all of their portfolio companies.

Alex Agran:

What are the trends that you’re seeing in the design world that might impact private equity in the future?

Chris Bernard:

When it comes to actually design delivery, we’re going through a classic evolution of design where I would say 10 to 15 years ago, or even going back 50 years ago, classical design principles were incredibly important to the enterprise. Today, one of the areas that I think is most important, and I draw this inspiration from John Maeda, is the coming era of computational design. When we look at how automation and machine learning and artificial intelligence are going to impact data and how we need to perceive it, it’s going to be critical for designers to have knowledge and domain expertise to design experiences for how we can translate and understand and process that information. We spend a lot of time at Perficient Digital thinking about, what does that coming era of computational design look like in terms of the experiences that we need to create? This will extend to things like Internet of Things. It will extend to AR and VR experiences that are going to be so data driven. That’s going to be a challenge for people. I would say AR and VR, just looking at the interfaces that we need, or looking at interfaces that use voice or where I need to look on the screen to see things, there’s a whole bunch of new variables that we need to design for. When TV was first invented, people would stand in front of a microphone and read a script. We’re kind of at that stage with a lot of this emerging technology where we need to build these patterns and practice to help people be successful.

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Alex Agran, Technology Transformer, Business Developer, and Volunteer

Once upon a time I was a software developer, back when it was simple and straightforward. Then technology evolved, quickly, in scale and complexity. But my skills didn't. So now I'm resigned to selling software development services. Not a bad gig. My primary area of focus is helping Private Equity firms understand how they can leverage technology at their portfolio companies to dramatically improve outcomes. I have a podcast that provides solid content on how to better approach the technology running portfolio companies. Outside of business, I'm passionate about providing time, effort, and money to helping those less fortunate. I currently sit on the board of HFS Chicago Scholars.

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