Ever won­dered why web de­sign is like per­form­ing a face trans­plant? The Mule De­sign co-founder tells all

net magazine - - CONTENTS - Words by Ju­lia Sa­gar Pho­tog­ra­phy by Tory Putnam

We chat to Mule De­sign co-founder Erika Hall about be­ing un­com­fort­able, mis­used in­sights and re­think­ing re­search

Erika Hall isn’t a sur­geon, but she’s not afraid of drop­ping a vis­ceral med­i­cal metaphor to ex­plain the in­tri­ca­cies of web de­sign: “If you re­design the ex­pe­ri­ence you’re of­fer­ing to the world, and don’t re­design the work­flow in­side the or­gan­i­sa­tion, that’s like do­ing a face trans­plant with­out hook­ing up the nerves and blood ves­sels un­der­neath it,” she an­nounces. “The new face will wither and die and slide off the skull.”

Hall is talk­ing about Mule De­sign’s re­design of the Na­tional Audubon So­ci­ety’s site, which re­sulted in a 300 per cent in­crease in re­turn­ing vis­i­tors. More specif­i­cally, she’s talk­ing about why it’s essential to en­gage the en­tire or­gan­i­sa­tion dur­ing a re­design, and how one of the hard­est parts of that process is per­suad­ing peo­ple to change their habits.

“Users have habits we have to de­sign for – clients and de­sign­ers get that. Or­gan­i­sa­tions have habits too. And these habits are ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to change,” she con­tin­ues. “You need to recog­nise that any change is work, even if what you’re do­ing is go­ing to elim­i­nate a lot of dif­fi­cult work­arounds and make ev­ery­one’s life eas­ier on pa­per. The work­arounds [still] feel eas­ier than any new process be­cause they’re habits run­ning on cog­ni­tive au­topi­lot.”

To change habits, says Hall, you need to un­der­stand why peo­ple in an or­gan­i­sa­tion do what they do. “You need to con­nect the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s goals to a ma­te­rial ben­e­fit for any­one who needs to work dif­fer­ently to achieve that goal. This re­quires un­der­stand­ing how peo­ple view their jobs, and do their jobs and com­mu­ni­cate with each other. You have to lis­ten to peo­ple be­fore you ask them to change.”

Mule work

Audubon is the per­fect ex­am­ple of Mule do­ing what it does best: web de­sign and con­tent strat­egy, in close col­lab­o­ra­tion with its clients. The in­ter­ac­tive de­sign stu­dio pro­vides strate­gic con­sult­ing, de­sign and tech­nol­ogy ser­vices to or­gan­i­sa­tions around the world, along­side quirkier per­sonal projects like Un­suck It, an online trans­la­tion de­vice for cor­po­rate jar­gon la­belled “de­light­fully hos­tile” by The New Yorker.

Hall co-founded Mule with de­signer Mike Monteiro in 2001, af­ter the pair met at ex­pe­ri­ence de­sign firm Hot Stu­dio (ac­quired by Face­book in 2013). “We started Mule

be­cause we loved the work and wanted to keep do­ing it, but on our terms. We were both ter­ri­ble em­ploy­ees. Re­ally, I feel bad for all of our former man­agers,” she laughs. “Also, in 2001 the much-hyped new in­ter­net econ­omy cratered. So that helped. We had to make our own jobs.”

The stu­dio’s first client was a wildlife pre­serve called Fos­sil Rim. Ya­hoo fol­lowed soon af­ter, then the UN – and they haven’t looked back. Now a tightknit team of 12, the stu­dio has started do­ing more train­ing and or­gan­i­sa­tional con­sul­ta­tion in re­cent years, along­side its project work.

De­spite re­ports claim­ing oth­er­wise, Hall says there are plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties around: “There was a lot of noise a cou­ple of years ago about the end of client ser­vices. This noise seemed to em­anate from de­sign­ers who were tired of run­ning their shops and wanted to go in-house, which is fine. How­ever, there is still a tremen­dous amount of work out there to be done.”

Ev­ery­thing Mule does starts with re­search. It’s a topic par­tic­u­larly close to Hall’s heart: she’s the au­thor of Just Enough Re­search – an en­gag­ing cook­book of re­search meth­ods – and has de­liv­ered a num­ber of talks on the sub­ject, re­mind­ing peo­ple of its im­por­tance in im­prov­ing your odds of suc­cess.

The prob­lem, she ar­gues, is that we also use the term ‘re­search’ for ac­tiv­i­ties in­tended to gather new knowl­edge for its own sake. “That makes it sound like an op­tional lux­ury,” she points out. “We need to stop think­ing of re­search as a bonus add-on. Gath­er­ing the in­for­ma­tion you need to solve a prob­lem is a part of solv­ing the prob­lem.” Hall sug­gests re­fram­ing it as ev­i­dence­based de­sign. “The point is that all of our de­sign de­ci­sions should be based on ev­i­dence, oth­er­wise it’s just spec­u­la­tion. Imag­ine hir­ing an ar­chi­tect and telling them to forgo sur­vey­ing the site to save money, or not to think about how the build­ing will be used. That seems ridicu­lous.”

The way to be­gin the re­search process, she ad­vises, is to start by think­ing about the scope of your de­ci­sions, and then the inputs to those de­ci­sions. Are you work­ing from in­for­ma­tion or guess­work? How confident are you in your in­for­ma­tion? Where are the risks that you’re wrong? The an­swers to those questions will tell you what in­for­ma­tion you need to gather.

Too much data

One mis­take Hall sees a lot of de­sign­ers mak­ing is to for­get that data alone won’t guide us. We’re gen­er­at­ing an un­fath­omable amount of data: we carry de­vices em­bed­ded with sen­sors, and more and more hu­man ac­tiv­ity is routed through the in­ter­net.

“There’s no limit to what we can track and mea­sure,” she ex­plains, adding that this is ex­cit­ing to de­sign­ers and tech­nol­o­gists who want to make bet­ter-in­formed de­ci­sions. But more data doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily cre­ate more mean­ing, and might even make it harder to see what mat­ters.

“It’s very easy to re­act to the data, and treat the things that are eas­i­est to mea­sure as though they are the most im­por­tant,” she warns. “We have lazy brains that are over­ac­tive pat­tern-match­ers, so we want to go to where the pat­terns seem to be, rather than tak­ing time to be dis­ci­plined, scep­ti­cal thinkers. Also, it’s very tempt­ing to give into con­fir­ma­tion bias. When there is so much data avail­able, it’s quite easy to find

“It’s very easy to treat the things that are eas­i­est to mea­sure as though they are the most im­por­tant”

some­thing to back up an opinion you al­ready have, or to sup­port your de­sired de­sign.”

As Hall will ar­gue dur­ing her talk at Gen­er­ate Syd­ney in Septem­ber (

282), what we can’t count still counts. But how im­por­tant – re­ally – is un­quan­tifi­able data like hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence and choice, and how can de­sign­ers build these as­pects into their strat­egy?

“When you say ‘un­quan­tifi­able data’, it can sound like some sort of mag­i­cal fairy dust, but qual­i­ta­tive data sim­ply means de­scrip­tions. It’s of­ten much richer in­for­ma­tion than mea­sure­ments, ” she ex­plains. “De­scrip­tions are much eas­ier for hu­mans to work with be­cause we are sto­ry­tellers, not cal­cu­la­tors. Mea­sure­ments will never tell you why some­thing is hap­pen­ing, and the ‘why’ mat­ters a tremen­dous amount.”

The way to har­ness this in­for­ma­tion is sim­ple: ob­ser­va­tion and dis­cus­sion. By watch­ing a hand­ful of peo­ple us­ing a site and talk­ing to them, Hall claims you could find out why con­ver­sions have dropped off in just a day. “Sure, you could A/B test dif­fer­ent fixes, but that’s just trial and er­ror, and depends on you see­ing sta­tis­ti­cally sig­nif­i­cant changes. It’s very waste­ful.”

The point is this: if you start by count­ing and mea­sur­ing, you will likely count and mea­sure what’s eas­i­est – and that might be the wrong thing. “Fig­ure out what your goal is and stop wor­ry­ing about look­ing smart. That’s my best piece of advice ,” Hall as­serts. “Most bad de­ci­sions are some­how grounded in in­se­cu­rity about look­ing smart. That makes peo­ple dumb.”

Fear goo

Hall is big on tack­ling fear. She calls it ‘fear goo’ and says it’s en­demic in hu­mans. In de­sign, it of­ten man­i­fests in peo­ple try­ing to solve some­thing by them­selves, rather than be­ing col­lab­o­ra­tive or ask­ing for help. It’s also found in or­gan­i­sa­tions where lead­ers are afraid of be­ing ques­tioned, and staff are afraid of ques­tion­ing the lead­er­ship.

But ask­ing questions is the cor­ner­stone to good re­search – and it’s also key to know­ing how much re­search is enough. “Start with the prob­lem you’re solv­ing and ask what in­for­ma­tion you lack,” she ad­vises. “Take a hard look at your em­bed­ded as­sump­tions. Your questions will de­ter­mine the ap­proach and meth­ods you should take to answer them. If you ever stop ask­ing questions, you’re do­ing it wrong.”

She’s also big on avoid­ing com­pla­cency. Striv­ing to be com­fort­able isn’t pro­duc­tive: com­fort means you’re not grow­ing. For­tu­nately, Mule keeps Hall hap­pily on her toes.

“Run­ning one’s own busi­ness is a fan­tas­tic way to re­main un­com­fort­able all the time,” she smiles. “Re­ally, I’m not even be­ing facile. So, I have that on lock. New chal­lenges all the time.”

She con­tin­ues: “The gift of ex­pe­ri­ence is that I’m now com­fort­able in sit­u­a­tions that would have made me throw up ear­lier in my ca­reer. I want to take on new kinds of work that make the best use of all of this ac­cu­mu­lated ex­per­tise. And we have such fan­tas­tic peo­ple work­ing at Mule, I want to do right by them and give them the sup­port and op­por­tu­ni­ties they need to shine.”

Mule also has a re­newed fo­cus on its home city of San Fran­cisco, in terms of client work and be­yond. The stu­dio’s new space has given the team room to run an art gallery and of­fer a va­ri­ety of events that are open to the com­mu­nity.

“That’s been a lot of fun, and re­ally im­por­tant to us. So many new com­pa­nies seem to be tak­ing from San Fran­cisco and not giv­ing back. Cul­tural shifts that seem in­nocu­ous, like cater­ing lunch in-house, de­prive lo­cal restau­rants, for ex­am­ple. We’re here be­cause we love it. If you’re just go­ing to stay sealed up in your posh of­fice all day, you could be any­where.”

It’s all about fo­cus­ing your en­er­gies: “Tech­nol­ogy changes, but hu­man na­ture doesn’t re­ally. We need to stop get­ting dis­tracted by the next shiny thing, whether it’s wear­ables or bots or VR, and fo­cus on what we’re try­ing to ac­com­plish, ” Hall rea­sons. “De­sign is bring­ing change. What change do you want to see in the world?” Next month: True Ven­tures de­sign part­ner Jeff Veen

“Run­ning one’s own busi­ness is a fan­tas­tic way to be un­com­fort­able all the time. I have that on lock”

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