Stretching Lean Budgets Strategically

Every business hits times when the budget gets tighter — it’s an inevitable part of being in it for the long haul. For a lot of industries, their short-term futures are a bit unpredictable right now, leading to questions about how to best set up their business to weather any twists and turns. 

In the face of uncertainty, many organizations scale back as quickly as possible to alleviate the pressure on their overhead. While understandable, rushed decisions can sometimes be short-sighted decisions, making it harder for those businesses to rebuild once lean times have passed. 

Just as strategy is important in times of growth, it’s also key in times of reduction. Whether you’re the one facilitating trims or absorbing them as best you can, read on for our take on putting strategy into leaner times. 

Center existing customers

While you can’t completely lose sight of expansion, the math is simple — it’s much less expensive to retain an existing customer than it is to acquire a new one. In moments when efficiency with available budgets is essential, the best move is often to invest the majority of your efforts in customer retention through the products, services, and/or tech systems your teams may already be running. This means maintenance, yes, but it also means uncovering new ways to provide benefits for them, ensuring they will return to you. Growth is important, and should not be forgotten, but it’s important to balance such endeavors with true investment in preserving what’s working for you today. 

Step back and learn, and go “lightweight”

We’ve seen huge payoffs for organizations that take budget setbacks as opportunities to zoom out on their business and take a closer look at their products and services. What makes the most sense to focus on in this new climate? Where is infrastructure/development urgently needed, and where can it wait? Which projects are going to best prepare the company for when the market forges ahead? In all likelihood, a change affecting your business also means changes for the partners and clients around you. How might these circumstances affect your short- and long-term success strategies? 

In lean times, it’s also very important to get to the learnings quickly so you can pivot if needed. Consider stepping back to ask what the scrappier, more agile version of your process might look like. You want to be investing efforts in the right places, so getting that feedback loop on a quicker cycle is key.  

Consider how projects are shelved

When an organization tightens the belt, it’s almost certain that internal priorities will need to shift. This often involves shelving longer-term projects, and refocusing resources to work on lower-hanging fruit that will generate income in the short term.

Once the worst of the budget drought has passed, though, most organizations will want to pick up where they left off on those shelved projects. The problem is that many times, the  employees with the institutional knowledge to restart those projects have been shuffled around in a reorg, laid off, or have left the company out of fear for the business’s future. Countless times, we’ve seen work either need to get redone because there was not enough context to pick it back up again — or, get restarted from scratch only to realize midway through that much of what they’ve worked on had already been done.

While it may not be realistic to avoid any kind of turnover or layoffs, consider using the lower-budget times to thoroughly document any mid-flight work that needs temporary shelving. This includes the work done to date, by whom, what was learned and the impact moving forward, and what still needs to be learned or done. Taking the time to do this in “quieter” times is hugely important to not wasting effort when your business is finally in recovery and expansion mode. 

Judicious use of outside help 

It’s hard to justify spending any money when your budget is limited. That said, given the overall fear of making the wrong decision that can pervade stressful times, it can be helpful to call on outside eyes for perspective and strategic support. Things like day-long prioritization workshops, short research sprints, or new tech trainings can be sensible ways to spend less money but still get a lot of impact and keep initiatives moving forward.

Another smart way to use outside support in tighter times is as short-term personnel augmentation. When you can’t commit to retaining FTEs for each role you need, hiring an agency can be a smart way to access a wide array of skill sets for less money.

Plan like the storm will pass — with the right strategy, you can help make sure it does. And if you’re looking for a partner in weathering that storm, we’d love to hear from you.

A New Way of Understanding Sports Fans

A lot of sports organizations think about their fan base in terms of subscription tiers. Their business strategy is largely about moving fans up those tiers, converting them to higher levels of monetization. Accordingly, they ask themselves questions like: what would it take for a fan to upgrade to a season ticket holder, an ESPN+ subscriber, or a daily reader of sports news? 

This approach makes sense. After all, a company is in the business of monetization. But to get a fan to upgrade, they must first and foremost be engaged with whatever it is you’re offering — be that a product, a team, or the game itself. To bring them up the tiers is essentially to ask them to increase their level of engagement with you. And if you want fans to engage deeply, you have to deeply understand what it is that they want.  

In other words, the better you can understand the crux of a fan’s engagement — how it is shaped, how it’s maintained, and how it grows (or stagnates…) — the better you can cultivate their inspiration to upgrade. Getting to this level of a fan identity requires an intimacy with their beliefs that goes beyond the details on an account subscription. 

A fan-centric view of sports

As mentioned, while there is clear value in analyzing subscription trends, it is inherently top-down and corporation-centric, placing fan behaviors primarily in relation to their monetary value for the company. If this is the key variable by which segments are sliced and diced, it can limit the organization’s ability to surface the most meaningful characteristics and variations that define their fan base. And, subsequently, limit the organization’s ability to serve such needs, and get the very upgrades they are after.

What many sports companies could use is a complementary bottom-up approach to segmenting and analyzing fans. This approach would start by understanding how and why a fan engages in a sport. Is it all about supporting a particular team? Is it a larger appreciation for the sport? Is it about the culture? Belonging? Nostalgia? Hometown pride? Is it about going to games because all their friends do? Starting on the ground to understand attitudinal and behavioral differences across fans can set organizations up to learn something deeper and more important about that fan than their subscribership status — things that ultimately do more to determine how they can serve each segment. 

Stories from the stadium 

In a previous project, a major sports league asked us to overhaul their mobile app. Their goal was to get fans to spend more time on the app so they could generate more ad revenue. When we started doing research on their fan base, we uncovered surprising trends that ended up influencing the league’s overall engagement strategies. For example, there was a significant portion of the fan base who were what we called “adopted fans.” Instead of inheriting a team from traditional family ties, they adopted a new team when they moved to a new state, or adopted one based on its underdog status. As newer fans, they looked to national news for sports intel. Diehard fans, on the other hand, primarily went straight to their local beat reporters for sports news. This stratification uncovered opportunities for the league to serve each group differently and personalize their experience on the app, increasing the engagement opportunity for each group. 

In another project with a major sports team, the avidity level of a fan turned out to be among the most important characteristics to analyze. We uncovered, for instance, a segment of the population we called “tag-alongs” — those who attended a sporting event because someone had invited them. Many of these tag-alongs didn’t know much about the sport to begin with, but loved the experience of going to a live game and rooting for the team. For this sub-group, the atmosphere and amenities at the stadium made a big impact on their likelihood to return. Once this group was uncovered, the team was able to do more to convert these tag-alongs into fans in their own right. 

Doing the “field” work: meeting fans where they are

Let’s assume your organization has bought into the value of uncovering the unique fan archetypes within their population. What comes next? 

One important way to research fan attitudes is, of course, going to games. Observing fans interacting with their sport or team, and also observing them in community with one another at games, is not to be overlooked. 

But fans are not only fans during sports games. They are also fans when they are reading the news, keeping up with players or stats or the league at large. They are fans when they’re out at a bar with friends and see their favorite player’s jersey on the wall. They are fans during off-season as well, even when there aren’t as many ways to show it. 

Understanding a fan means understanding the rhythm of their fandom, the ebbs and flows in addition to the moments of peak excitement and engagement. How they stay connected to their team or sport when games aren’t going on can be just as informative as how they behave during a game. There are cadences to the experiences of different sports fans, and understanding that richness of detail is key to understanding how their needs can best be met. We’ve found that understanding these harder-to-capture aspects of fandom require different research methodologies — for instance, perhaps you need diary studies to check in on fans during off-season or lulls in action. Perhaps you need to post up in a sports bar and catch people stretching out the emotion of a game by connecting over it. Perhaps you need data points from people as they read sports news throughout the week. 

Sports mean a lot to people. For some, their fandom is a key piece of how they see their own identities. Taking the time to understand these segments with multidimensional attributes with care can pay off greatly for fan satisfaction as well as overall engagement metrics.

Looking to better understand and serve your fans? We’d love to hear from you!

The 2024 Design Forecast

We did it, everyone. We made it through another year. To be perfectly frank, this year was a bit of a weird one, mainly due to a few key elements:

  • A real will they, won’t they dance with a potential recession that constrained the budgets and resources of many organizations this year
  • Generative AI coming front and center and taking over everyone’s conversations and questions about the future in product and business
  • More layoffs across industries, impacting the design & product communities as well as what the remaining team members can accomplish

So let’s look ahead to next year, shake our magic 8 ball, and make our predictions about what trends we’ll see in 2024.

Generative AI Implementation Begins 

2023 many folks spent learning and hiring for generative AI leadership in their organizations. Certainly both these things will continue into the new year, but orgs are starting to feel ready to “try something” in generative AI and set up their first initiatives and pilots to test out what AI can do for them. 

One unsolicited piece of advice we’ll give from our previous experience: take your time to really define and scope the problem you’re solving, make sure AI is the right solution for your user group, and start small. It’s easy to skip past these steps but most everyone is in a test-and-learn moment right now, so if ever there was a time to understand before blasting a technology everywhere, this is the time.

The Return of Innovation

Businesses at large took a collective pause from innovating to focus on optimizing what already exists. Part of this is burnout from the last few years, part of it was budget slashing and belt-tightening. And to be honest, this will likely continue into the first half of 2024, especially given the geopolitical and economic tensions currently simmering. 

However, our bet is that the second half of 2024 will begin to see a return to pushing innovation, particularly for incumbents who may have newcomers nipping at their heels. It’s always nerve-wracking to feel like you’re losing momentum in the market, and innovation is the way to stay ahead of the pack.

Consumer-Focused Mixed Reality Hits the Shelves

In a prediction that merges both innovation and emerging tech, we’re seeing a trend towards more mainstream utilization of mixed reality and spatial UI design (things like Vision Pro and Quest3), particularly in the enterprise side of things on tasks like training and digital twinning. 

This trend is still looking for its footing on the consumer side, which leaves 2024 wide open to folks looking to lead in that space. We foresee the emergence of tools involving B2C applications in this realm, though it won’t yet be a saturation of the market. Frankly, if the economy continues in an up and down pattern, it will likely remain a luxury novelty in the consumer space until people have the money – or a reason – to invest in it. Likely 2024 will be a learning year for all of us watching this space to see what plays out with consumers.

Research Execution Will Extend Beyond Researchers

While many design and product teams were hit hard with layoffs in late 2022 and throughout 2023, it’s worth noting that research teams seem to have taken the hardest hits. Because of this, needed research is going undone and we’re seeing product managers and UX designers taking up the mantle of executing research – in particular, evaluative research that is necessary for the optimization work that’s been on the forefront this year. 

We see 2024 being a year where research continues to be a deficit and many organizations will look to contractors and agencies to fill the gap – but also to their internal folks with less of a background in how to execute. For this reason, we may also see an uptick in attendance for research conferences, books (we love Steve Portigal’s Interviewing Users and Caroline Jarrett’s Surveys That Work), online courses, and trainings to help support these additional asks on folks. 

Want to talk about your design & research support needs for 2024? Reach out to us!

Great First Impressions: Leveraging UI for Critical Product Moments

Your user interface is your digital first impression. And as we all know, a good first impression can change everything. 

UI design is often thought of as the creation of pleasing aesthetics. While this may be a part of what we focus on, the broader concern of the UI designer is to manage how someone feels while interacting with your content or page. Such feelings will translate, both consciously and subconsciously, into how people feel about you and your brand. Even minor confusion or frustration about what to click or how to input information can erode trust — who’s to say working with your business won’t be similar to using your website?

With ever-higher expectations for our digital world, and such high stakes, UI should not be an afterthought. Grand Studio’s UI team has compiled some tips for any teams taking on a new — or evolving — digital product. 

Tip 1: When everything calls out for attention, nothing calls out for attention

In an effort to get important components noticed, many designers try to crunch a lot of content above the fold (at the topmost part of a page, before needing to scroll down). Unfortunately, this most often ends up backfiring. Even if your user can see all the pieces in one glance, you risk overwhelming them, and generating confusion about what they should pay attention to.

We recommend placing one (or maybe two) areas of focus up top, sending the rest more into the background. Use color, contrast, size, and placement on the page to guide a user cleanly from primary to secondary focus. White space is your friend. 

Tip 2: Your top priority is helping your user know what to do when

It may sound obvious, but it’s far too easy to get caught up in components of the design and lose track of its primary purpose — helping the user take the action they need to take on the page. Consider the user’s paths through the page, and make sure they have everything they need to complete their journey. Never let your user wonder things like, “is this text interactive?” “what does this icon mean?” or “how do I fix the error I’m seeing?” 

At its most basic level, a visual interface is a means to communicate efficiently with your user so you can guide them through what they need as elegantly as possible. You want your UI to be a good communicator.

Tip 3: Everything that can be consistent should be consistent

If we think about a visual interface as a means of communicating with the user, it is critical that we are always using consistent language to do so. Though it may sound minor, using a color to mean one thing (e.g. red button = “remove”) at one point and another thing (e.g. red = “edit!”) at another point can be cognitively taxing on a user. As you establish your visual language, make sure there is always just one meaning attached to any given visual component, whether that’s an icon, a color, a word, or a button. 

These things not only save your user time, they help the user feel better on your page. Smooth sailing = trust generated. 

Tip 4: Consider your breakpoints, and don’t skip testing on the end device!

While of course there may be slight differences between different breakpoints or devices, there should always be visual and functional similarities across them. The idea here is to create an experience that is seamless and consistent for everyone, regardless of the device and its size. 

To create the type of layout that will be clear and usable no matter the size of the window, we recommend designing for breakpoints — points at which a design will “break” if you stretch your browser window wider — to ensure all of the page’s elements will nicely fit the available screen space, no matter the size. Considering breakpoints will naturally optimize content for viewing on different devices (even ones that haven’t been invented yet), ensuring everyone gets a clear and usable view.

That said, it’s still very important to view your design on the end device to be able to visualize it in a realistic way. You can do this by downloading your design and opening it up in your browser or device, like a mobile phone. Seeing your design in context with the device will ensure that elements or text are sized correctly and comfortably.

Tip 5: Accessible designs are better for everyone

Making sure your design can be used by as many types of people as possible not only increases the number of people who can interact with you, it can also help you find and resolve points of confusion that go on to help everyone. Accessibility isn’t icing on the cake; it is a critical component of good design. 

For example, take alt text for images, or text that describes what is happening in an image. Alt text’s primary function is to help those with visual impairments hear through text-to-speech what each image contains. But alt text can also be really helpful for Google searches, and helping people find content on your page. It’s invisible for those who don’t need it, but there for people who do. (For more on this, check out our blog post on accessibility.)

At Grand Studio, our UI team does way more than “pixel push.” Because we see UI as a critical part of a holistic design practice, UI is integrated into product strategy, UX, and even design research. We know that the best user interfaces come out of a deep understanding of not just UI best practices, but an understanding of the particular context and goals of each client we work with. When you’re making a first impression with your users, nothing could be more important. 

Got a user interface project? We’d love to hear from you?

Designing Products for Healthcare: 5 Important Considerations

In the healthcare space, the design choices you make can quite literally have life-or-death stakes. Getting it right is important. 

But healthcare environments are unique spaces, and what works in other industries might not always carry over. In addition to regulatory considerations like HIPAA, many healthcare organizations have distinct cultures and ways of doing things shaped by decades of caring for people, often in extreme circumstances. 

Grand Studio has had the privilege of working with several healthcare organizations over the years and has come away with some rules of the road when it comes to product design in these specialized spaces. Read on for five key things to keep in mind.

Tip #1: Involve Clinicians & Other Stakeholders from Day 1

For the best chance of success, bring in key stakeholders right from the outset — particularly clinicians. For one, their perspectives will be critical to developing whatever you’re creating. But also their involvement will also help build buy-in and trust. 

Too often, clinical teams get burned by the debut of some new technology that was clearly built without insight into their day-to-day experience and ends up causing more headaches than it eases. Looping these key stakeholders in immediately and keeping them up to date as the design process moves forward will have a two-pronged benefit: you’ll spot potential problems in the design, and you’ll also do a lot to socialize your effort. You build faith that you’re listening to them, working to understand their unique, high-pressure world. 

That said, keep in mind that they are busy literally saving lives. They may not be available for every collaboration you’d want from them, so as part of your Day 1 involvement, settle on a cadence that gets your team the input you need while respecting their often busy schedules.

Tip #2: Onboarding Must Be a Part of Your Design

Take the time up-front to consider the onboarding process. People working in healthcare environments, from doctors to nurses to administrators, almost always have a great deal on their plates, and what’s on their plates is extremely important. Changing a process or asking people to adopt a new product can feel extremely disruptive. Even something people may ultimately find helpful and time-saving might gather proverbial dust if the channels of a routine run too deep — especially if it’s not explicitly clear why or how people should switch things up.

The single most important thing you can do to help onboarding is getting an internal champion — someone who believes in what you are doing and can support you in socializing it from within. Clinicians tend to place a high degree of trust in insiders who know through experience what their day-to-day life is actually like. Finding the key leverage points in the culture of an organization and getting them on your side will be critical to any onboarding/socialization plan. (In our experience, the most powerful shifters of culture are doctors and nurses.)

And of course, onboarding is not a one-and-done thing. Just as the design requires iteration, so too does onboarding. It’s important to continually go back to the front lines and tweak how the value prop and plan are described, paying attention to what yields the best adoption.

Tip #3: Design for Rapid Action

Healthcare providers frequently need to do things quickly. While efficiency is valuable in any situation, there are particularly time-sensitive moments in healthcare — like responding to a patient with a critical condition exacerbation.

In a recent project with one of the largest private healthcare organizations in the US, our task was designing tools for nurses to remotely monitor patients with postpartum hypertension. In our design, we asked ourselves how we could enable nurses to quickly identify which patients required their attention most urgently — digital triage, in essence. If a patient in a life-threatening condition was identified, we also asked ourselves how we could best support the subsequent action that needed to be taken. For patients with dangerously high blood pressure, we worked with our client on a system by which nurses could immediately alert not just the attending physician but also the patient and their circle of care. Nurses could act rapidly on the situation and also keep everyone connected.

Tip #4: Allow for Personalization

In the clinical field, there is a vast diversity in job functions as well as people’s way of doing things. Instead of making a one-size-fits-all solution, you’re better off locating and enabling key points of personalization that allow people to do their jobs in ways that suit their needs. 

We recommend interviewing wide sets of end users and attuning yourself to the subtle differences in process that could inform how you allow for personalization of the product. Some clinicians, for example, only need to view a subset of the patient population in order to do their job, and anything beyond that will be visual clutter. Some clinicians need to filter down by a particular biometric or health status marker. Some clinicians need to respond to issues in different ways than others. Building in personalization helps you meet people where they are and let them practice medicine the way they know best.

Tip #5: Support the Patient-Provider Relationship

The job of technology in healthcare should always be one of making healthcare providers more efficient and effective — not impinging upon or trying to replace a clinician’s relationship with their patients. No matter how “intelligent,” technology is ill-suited to replace this powerful and healing relationship. 

Focus instead on getting technology to solve lower-level problems so that providers can spend time on patients in need of their skill set. Focus on designing tools that enable high-impact interactions and offload low-level ones. Figure out ways to optimize and clear a path for what care providers do best. 

Want to learn how Grand Studio can help with your next healthcare project and build clarity out of complexity?

Drop us a line! We’d love to hear from you.