The Age of Mobile – Downton and Design

The month of January is always rife with expert predictions about trends in the New Year. Some are outlandish, some are wishful thinking, and some are on target.

One area that we believe is on target is the continuing march of mobile supremacy over its desktop relatives. If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey, you might compare this transformation to the devolution of Britain’s aristocracy following the Great War.

With the superb vision of hindsight, we are amused at the desperate grasping of the Dowager Countess Violet Crawley and Sir Michael Reresby of Dryden Park (Season 6 Episode 3) to the old ways. They both believe that if somehow they can maintain the status quo just a bit longer, these nagging fads (fewer servants, women without escorts, the lower classes seeking improved circumstances) will soon fade.

Sometimes, we wonder if these ostrich thoughts are running through the buried heads of those who are not concerned about their non-responsive websites. Do they think that mobile phones, phablets, and tablets are silly trends that will soon fall out of vogue?

Like Countess Cora Crawley last Sunday, we’ve done our homework. Take a look at the share of mobile online sales on Black Friday in 2015. A full one-third of online sales were executed on mobile. And look at the trend – talk about a march. Those stair-steps remind us of another January activity – New Year’s resolutions and working out.


So if you don’t have an eCommerce website, are you off the hook? Nope. Let’s not forget that mobile passed desktop in Internet usage in 2015. Oh, and that Google will potentially penalize you for not having a mobile friendly site. No big deal unless you want prospective clients/customers to find you when they are searching in your industry.

Take a look at new device activations during the holiday season. This chart might take a moment to digest. But here’s the big bite: People like their smartphones and bigger smartphones (phablets), more than tablets. How’s your website looking on your cell phone?


If you’re having trouble letting go of your valet or lady’s maid, we have one last chart for you. While we don’t believe that people are abandoning PCs, the last three years have not been particularly kind to the big lugs. The strength of the U.S. dollar may not have helped overseas sales, but analysts see structural changes on the horizon leading to fewer people using PCs.


Look, we know it’s tough. Mrs. Patmore is still struggling with her new refrigerator. But it’s time to get on the Branson, Lady Mary, and Lady Edith rail car. Let’s talk about getting your website ready to embrace modern times.

My, How Design Has Changed


That sounds a bit like a grandma or a too-doting-an-aunt remark. But now and then I’m overwhelmed with conflicting feelings about the current state of digital design. When I started some two decades ago, it was a holistic, all-consuming affair. I studied media arts & graphic design at the University of Arizona, and web design & usability at UCLA when they were embryonic topics. I led Ernst & Young’s bicoastal design team for its Center for Technology Enablement group when email was just beginning to replace the interoffice memo.

Sure I’ve evolved. I no longer write HTML from scratch. We employ BaseCamp, Asana, Pre.Vue, Slack, and Skype to communicate and manage projects instead of the hand-built HTML project sites I used to craft. I rarely sit in person with a hefty laptop to present design concepts or wires to our clients – we meet virtually with Google Hangout, GoToMeeting,, or BlueJeans.

The scheduled photo shoots with a lighting guy, a stylist, and an assistant to nab the right shot for brand, web, and print pieces has morphed into the hunting, decision, and purchasing process from sites like Stocksy, CreativeMarket, VisualHeirarchy, et al. Designers can combine hi-resolution photography with well-designed themes, PSD smart objects, and helpful vector layout kits (not to mention Sketch). Laboring for hours over code to produce clickable user experiences is over – InVision, Solidify, and Axure have deftly allowed our team to provide UX prototypes for our clients that already look real. This ensures a collaborative, iterative design process that’s both quick and cost-effective.

As a firm, we still insist that clients do not skimp on brand development. But the basement competition allows you to flash a five-dollar bill on Fiverr or a couple hundred bucks on 99 designs – presenting a logo as a *brand* to the unwitting. Even websites can be quickly produced by the layman with SquareSpace, Wix, and the forthcoming phenomenon of The Grid.

And yet, as much as it sometimes feels as if a once respectable vocation has turned into a used-car business, I must say, I relish the change. Now small businesses that could not have afforded design studio contracts can have a relatively professional looking digital presence and take advantage of our increasingly digital economy. For these smaller clients, design studios might now be able to play a more strategic role, offering direction, consultation, and best practices.

In a sense, this evolution has sculpted the brand identity of our virtual team at Designing North Studios. We’ve been able to aggregate a team of stars who have the deep knowledge to both consult and implement. The digital revolution has permitted us to bring so many stars together because we’re not shackled to a single zip code. And due to the extraordinary volume of noise in the digital landscape, having a team who can make a business audible above the cacophony does add value. We can take our years of experience in listening, researching, strategizing, and finally designing to re-imagine user experiences and create strong brand identities that are intrinsically tied to clear business goals.

I guess it’s okay that I’m no longer slogging through HTML in every nook and cranny of our projects. It doesn’t make me less of a designer. In fact, it allows me to focus more deeply on the creative elements that add that hover above – that provide authentic differentiation. In the end, it’s great design if it successfully accomplishes what your business set out to do. Period.

Thanks for the therapy session. I’m cool now.

Note: I still love and prefer meeting clients in person whenever it works for them!


How about you?  What do you miss? Do you agree that the evolution is a net positive?

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Top 10 Reasons You Need a Website Redesign – #YouMightBeAWebneck

Sometimes it’s difficult to know whether or not it’s time for a website redesign. Then again, sometimes it’s obvious. For example, when you’ve decided to take your brick-and-mortar business online and need to launch an eCommerce website – that’s obvious. Let’s face it, it’s a big investment to redesign your website – both internally and externally, and nobody wants to deploy precious marketing budget dollars needlessly. So here is our advice to help you in your decision-making process. If you answer yes to one or more of the items below, it’s probably time to talk to a trusted digital design agency.

You might be a webneck, if:


Your website doesn’t pass Google’s Mobile Friendly test.

This is a very simple concept. It’s pass/fail. As of April 21, 2015, Google began degrading organic search results for non-mobile-friendly websites. If you’re still enjoying strong search results, you’re lucky. Here’s the link to test your website:


Your website is not responsive.

No, that sentence doesn’t mean your website has no pulse and you should rush it to the ER. Although, figuratively, it kind of does. A responsive website is essentially one that can be experienced and look great on whichever platform it is being viewed. That means it looks good and is useable on smartphones and tablets, as well as desktops and laptops. If it’s not responsive, you didn’t pass #1 above either, but we need to underscore this point. Nearly a quarter of all 2014 online sales Black Friday / Cyber Monday weekend were completed on MOBILE. Check out the charts below. Let’s face it, the world is going mobile.



2014 Holiday Season- M-Commerce-Key-Holiday-Shopping-Days_reference


Your website still has Flash.

Seriously? Sorry, we don’t mean to be offensive, but have you been living under a rock? If your website utilizes Flash, pick up your phone now. You need a redesign. You are broadcasting to the world that your business does indeed drag its knuckles on the ground. Apple’s Steve Jobs forcefully stated his reasons for not supporting Flash on iPhone and iPads back in April 2010, yet incredibly, over 20% of websites still make a Flash request.



Your website takes too long to load.

Sure, those graphics and that video were spectacular when you launched your new site just four years ago, but now no one is waiting around to see them. 47% of users expect a web page to load in two seconds or less, and 40% of users will leave a website if it takes more than three seconds to load {source: Econsultancy}. You work so hard to get eyes to your website, don’t make them leave because you haven’t upgraded it.


Your website’s lost that lovin’ feeling.

And it’s gone, gone, gone. Once your page finally loads (see #4. above), users form an opinion in 0.05 seconds {source: Kinesis Inc.}. According to the NN Group, you have 10 seconds to leave an impression and tell them what they’ll get out of your website and company before they leave. So ask yourself, Does your website’s homepage pack a punch with a sharp, concise message that’s well supported by its graphical design?


Your website is text heavy.

Like it or not (and we at Designing North Studios are book lovers, so…), people don’t take the time to read much text online. If your website has page after page of paragraph after paragraph of text, nobody is reading it. That doesn’t mean you can’t have downloadable white papers or product descriptions, but it probably does mean that it’s time for a website overhaul.


The carpet doesn’t match the drapes.

Regardless of your interpretation of that metaphor, it drives the point home. In this globally competitive landscape, your prospective clients and customers don’t need any surprises. At least not negative surprises. If you fancy your legal practice as the go-to tech law firm, but your website looks like your nerdy nephew pasted it together in 2007, you better believe that when the innovator with the IPO of the decade checks out your site, he’s going to question your tech bona fides.


You’ve expanded globally, but your website is English – only.

If you expect to be a serious global contender, whether in eCommerce or as a service provider or thought-leader, you should consider offering your website in the language of the target home country. This is a big decision by the way. While digital translators have come a long way in the past decade, they are still imperfect. We know. We’ve tested them. Capiche? You’ll need to employ native speakers to assist in the translations, and you’ll need to be committed to translating future updates as well.


Your website hasn’t kept up with your competitors.

If you go online to check out a restaurant, you expect to be able to review its menu. So if you’re running a string of restaurants, and don’t display online menus, don’t expect to accumulate new customers via the Internet. Similarly, if you’re part of the premier orthopedic group in your town, but that practice across the tracks has a website that allows patients to cancel or modify appointments online rather than sitting on hold, as long as they’re not bolting patellae to scapulae, you might get lapped.


Your website adds no value to your customer/clients.

Over two decades ago when I started in this business, it was the Wild West. Nobody was quite sure what worked best. Many businesses just slapped something up on the web to ensure they had a Yellow Pages style presence. Every now and then that still works, but those instances are declining precipitously – think sliding down Everest on a bobsled precipitous. Equally, the websites that are sell, sell, sell are much like watching those insipid infomercials – you want to change the channel as soon as possible. If you’re selling jeans online, are you showing them paired with cute tops and shoes for outfit ideas? Do you have an FAQ section or a blog post about the various denim textures that you sell or a calculator that allows the customer to input their measurements, then spits out a recommended size? If you’re a law firm, does your home page cite a couple of recent cases to illustrate how you would approach a prospective client’s case? Do you offer periodic free tips to your corporate clients that might keep them out of court? Take a good hard look at your website with fresh eyes. Are you helping or just spamming and prattling?


Look, despite the fact that we are embedded in this business, the pace of change is annoying to us too. Just when we can operate a software platform in our sleep, the provider releases an upgrade. We’re not always a first-adopter; sometimes playing a little wait-and-see can be valuable – but eventually we have to bite the proverbial bullet. Plus, all of these upgrades (software, websites, computers, smartphones, etc.) and the concomitant re-training associated with them are expensive. Double sting. That said, what we’ve presented here are not the latest innovations or ephemeral trends. Our Top 10 Reasons You Need a Website Redesign are, in our professional opinion, clearly established indicators that if ignored, may profoundly impact your business in the near future.

Questions? Did we miss one? We would love to hear your thoughts –

Crows and Design Strategy – Cracking the Nut


What do crows have to do with design strategy? One could easily argue that crows are rarely cast in a positive light. Think of the phrases associated with the ebony fowl: You old crow; Cackling like a bunch of crows; Eat crow; and for us women, the dreaded Crow’s feet. I mean really – we call a flock of them a murder of crows. These guys have a serious PR problem, so why the metaphor?

I live in the country and work from my home office, so much of my thinking is influenced by the outdoors. As I walked my dogs early Halloween morning, I was once again struck by the annual highway located 50 feet above my head. Our property lies about a half-mile (quite literally as the crow flies) from a walnut orchard. Each autumn, the crows mount an industrious effort to harvest said orchard.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that the tufty endeavor is in fact a highly organized and strategic operation. Beginning at dawn, a squadron of the first airborne descends on the farm. Each pilot grabs a ripe walnut that has dropped to the ground, then begins the long flight to base station. They fly in two lanes on two separate highways. The outbound crows carry their full payload, while the inbound crows have already stored their assets at base station. Free of walnuts, the inbounders cackle encouragement at the burdened outbounders.

Squadron leaders intermittently accompany the outbound crows. They do not carry nuts, but instead coach the neophytes along their flight path. I like to imagine that they are offering suggestions for course adjustment and flight refinement. By late morning, work has ceased save for a few crows on maintenance duty.

Beyond their remarkable coordination, the crows have developed an ingenious method of cracking their walnuts. When we first moved to the sticks, I pitied the crows that accidentally dropped their walnuts on the pavement as I drove down lonely country roads. After another neighbor complained about the walnut shells and crow feces on his tennis court, it occurred to me that none of this was accidental. The crows deliberately drop the walnuts on hard surfaces to crack them. If they don’t break the first time, they shovel them back into their beaks, fly a little higher, and drop their bombs again. It certainly saves some serious headaches from incessantly pounding your beak against the near impervious shells.


Despite their bad rap, we can learn a lot from our feathered friends with respect to good design practice. There’s no question that they have studied the problem of how to efficiently transport their winter food source from Point A to Point B. They’ve developed effective processes for their airborne armada. Each soldier knows his role and the mission of the team. Practical feedback and encouragement is given by team leaders. And finally, through what was likely an iterative process, they arrived at a creative solution for cracking the nut.

As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said, Method is more important than strength, when you wish to control your enemies. By dropping golden beads near a snake, a crow once managed to have a passer-by kill the snake for the beads.

While we are not the largest digital design studio in California, like the crows, we do employ proven methods such as discovery and research, iterative processes, creative solutions and innovative approaches through re-imagining experiences to help our clients shrewdly rise above their competition and cleverly crack the nut.

What about you? Had an natural epiphanies lately?

Top 10 Things to Consider Before You Hire a Digital Design Agency, or…

(The 10 Things Your Best Friend would Tell You if She Owned a Design Agency)

You know the drill.  When you have a big decision to make that’s outside your knowledge wheelhouse, you check-in with a trusted friend for advice.

You twist your knee playing tennis, so you call your old college pal the orthopedic surgeon for advice.

“I’ll make a few calls and get you a couple of names. Make sure you insist on an MRI. And take your old x-rays in – explain your past trauma to that knee – still can’t believe you fell off that table sophomore year. Ask about insurance coverage – a lot of the best surgeons are independent now, and you don’t want any surprises. Your doc should have a go-to physical therapy team – it’s one thing to have a successful surgery, but what happens afterwards is equally important.”

So you’ve decided it’s time for a new website. When you type in your website address on your iPhone, it loads at a glacial pace and the text is microscopic. You’re ticked because you just spent $75K building a new one four years ago. Of course you’ve had two other iPhones since then –  Why does this stuff keep changing so fast?!

No, it’s not fair, but the digital landscape is changing at an exponential pace and you have to keep up if you want to remain competitive and frankly, relevant.

As managing director of a Bay Area digital design firm, here is the advice I give to my best friends when they call me:

  1. DEFINE YOUR GOALS – CLARITY IS QUEEN. As with all strategic planning, understanding your clarity of purpose is paramount. If it’s not clear why you’re taking on this project, you certainly are not going to be able to adequately convey your vision to a design team. If you don’t? No one will be happy in the end. You think you need a new website? Ask yourself and your internal team why. “Because this one stinks” is insufficient data. Why does it stink? “It takes too many steps for someone to place an order.” “It’s terrible on mobile.” “It makes us look old-school – our digital image doesn’t match our edgy physical image.” “Our competition is doing 25% more eCommerce business than we are.” “It’s just not who we are anymore.” Now we’re getting somewhere.
  2. DO THEY CONDUCT RESEARCH? Your prospective design firm should insist on interviewing current customers, partners, employees, and target customers/clients. They need to understand your culture from the good, the bad, and the ugly. Digesting how others perceive what you do well and what you do poorly is key to a successful project. If your prospective agency isn’t asking for clarity and doing a deep-dive in discovery, you’ve picked the wrong pony.
  3. ENSURE IT’S RESPONSIVE. Without going totally geeky on you, put simply:: responsive web design means your website will be experienced and look great on all three of the major digital platforms: desktop, tablet, smartphone. I cannot stress the importance of this enough. Industry data shows smartphone access of the Internet is skyrocketing [add charts here]. Google announced that they’re now penalizing websites that are not ‘mobile friendly’ in search rankings (see #8 below). Friends don’t let friends build non-responsive websites.
  4. ESTABLISH A SUSTAINING BUDGET. You’ll need to write compelling content via blog posts and/or new product descriptions. You’ll want your social channels pointing to your flossy new site. You’ll want to keep it fresh with new photos and new hire bios. You’ll need to have your provider update to the latest platform, plug-in, and widget versions, as well as periodically back-up your site.
  5. ASSESS YOUR IN-HOUSE TALENT. Do you have internal personnel who can adequately address the needs of your on-going web support? If not, will you hire someone, or does the digital agency your considering offer such services?
  6. DO YOU LIKE THESE PEOPLE? Developing a new website or app takes time and substantial communication. And more than likely, you will have some form of relationship with your digital design agency after the product launches. Do you like the people presenting the proposal? Do you trust them? If you’ve got that crummy feeling inside as you walk or login to another meeting with them, think twice before hiring them. This can be fun, you know.
  7. PICK AN INTERNAL POINT PERSON. Make someone responsible for this project. If you’re the owner/founder or president/CEO, you’re probably going to get distracted. Select a highly organized person whom you trust, and let them run with it. Make sure they’re giving you regular updates, and make sure that you give them your undistracted attention. The reason a project misses deadlines is usually due to A) The client taking too long to review work-in-progress (WIP); B) The client not spending enough time in their own discovery stage to clearly define goals and requirements, resulting in a circuitous path to the finish line; C) The true decision-maker is only partially engaged, and when it comes down to final revisions, decides he/she wants fundamental changes.
  8. INSIST ON ANALYTICS BEING INSTALLED AND TRANSFERRED TO YOU. You know the old adage, “If you’re not measuring, you’re just practicing.” None of us have time or money to waste. For perhaps the first time in history, your marketing dollars can be accurately measured against performance.  You need to know what’s working and what isn’t. Google Analytics is free, and will go a long way to help you understand where your web traffic is coming from and which of your pages are performing and which aren’t. Make sure your developer has included analytics in the proposal, as well as submitting your new website to the top search engines (Google, Bing, Yahoo). The agency should set-up a Google webmaster account for you and hand over the keys to someone in your organization. Alternatively, you could hire them to provide you with monthly reports.
  9. INQUIRE AND LEARN ABOUT SEO. If you build it, they won’t necessarily come. SEO stands for search engine optimization. When you type in a search phrase on your computer or mobile device, the search engine (e.g. Google) looks at what you’ve typed, and using a highly sophisticated set of algorithms, serves you the websites links it believes best fits your search criteria. You want your new website optimized for SEO so that people find you when they type in phrases that match the products or services that your company provides. If your prospective digital design agency doesn’t address this topic with you, it’s a signal that they do not have your best interests in mind.
  10. ASK FOR A TEST PLAN. Your digital design agency should be making faux purchases through your eCommerce, complete with credit cards. They need to test the new site’s functionality on desktops, tablets, smartphones, browsers (e.g. Chrome, Firefox, Explorer, Safari) and operating systems (iOS, Android, Windows, OS X, etc.).  What are your expectations for how many versions back they’ll test for?
  11. CHECK REFERENCES. Okay – I had to add just one more. After all, you are hiring people. Call a couple of their recent clients and see what the agency was like to work with. I asked the CEO of a billion dollar company recently how he liked working with a particular high-flying ad agency. On a scale of 1 to 10 he gave the creative product a 9. He gave his personal contact a 2. Was months of consternation worth it? We all have our own thresholds.  What are yours?

CONCLUSION. Jumping in bed with a digital design agency takes some reflection. Be armed with knowledge going into the relationship, and clarify roles – you’ll have a much more successful marriage as a result.

How about you – had any good or bad experiences lately?  Which of our Top 10 is the most important to you?

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