Smashing Spotlight: Paul Townsend, Associate Director of Strategy
Ever wonder what makes Smashing Ideas so smashing? Our people! We sat down with Paul Townsend, Associate Director of Strategy, to talk shop, the importance of strategically delivering “difficult truths” to clients, how his prior roles as a mechanical engineer and in program management positively impact his strategic approach, and how he just missed out on a million dollar idea that Google is utilizing today.
What is the role of user research in defining strategic direction?
Research is an integral part of a healthy UX cycle. I really feel that UX design and research work best when tightly coupled, when researchers are embedded in a design team and culture, and when designers are able to participate in and monitor research activities. Personally, I’ve always found that feeding my experience and grounding my understanding of the customer, whether that’s through interviews, user tests, field visits, or simply conversation, ignites a subconscious part of me that inspires breakthrough ideas and design.
Overall I’d say that “strategy” then is required to take that to another level and create a powerful business product and relationship. At Smashing, I’ve found that the strategic work heavily leverages some of my product and program management background, and requires a level of business acumen and intuition. In this cycle, research says as unbiasedly as possible, that “these are the key things customers are saying, feeling, and doing, and here are some examples that highly support or inform our hypotheses.” Design then says “here are some elegant ways in which we can support the needs revealed in research.” Then, strategy is required to finally pull it all together: product strategy, service model, business opportunities, UX design, and user insights.
Strategy must also help decide what should be done. Strategy has a level of embedded ethics, which must reconcile questions from different areas and stakeholders to ultimately recommend and navigate the right path forward.
- “What eliminates barriers and pain points, while meeting all of a user’s core needs?”
- “What will go beyond that to delight the end-user and client?”
- “What can be done affordably?”
- “What will be profitable to our client?”
- “How can we reach the largest audience?”
- “What is our market for this initiative?”
- “What is the longevity of this solution?”
- “Is it going to be feasible to build and maintain?”
- “Is this just the first step in a longer term improvement?”
- “Are there deeper issues beyond this surface improvement?”
- “What is best for all parties involved?”
Part of your role involves delivering “difficult truths” to clients in a manner that is digestible for them. What is a “difficult truth” and why is it important?
Oh yes! After my first intensive project at Smashing, my coworkers affectionately called me “professor pain”, because I was given the task of delivering the “difficult truths” to a client as part of a larger presentation. People joked that the new guy was given the hard job (not really) and evidently I delivered it with sort of a professorly, instructive quality that the client really responded to. Thankfully we had a super receptive client who afterwards told me “I love hearing about the pain. Keep surfacing these things!” They were eager to identify these issues because they could then put a plan in place to improve their tools and processes, with both immediate short term and long term strategies.
Sometimes a client is so close to their daily processes that having an independent agency like ours, do research, can offer some real breakthroughs for them. We have very healthy protocols for setting up a thorough but flexible interview approach, drawing insights from key participants who can inform certain client processes or opportunities. We are very team-oriented and achieve more together than as individuals. I love this process and it’s very exciting when we identify patterns and trends, whether subtle or blatant, across numerous participant sessions. We remain neutral and interested throughout the interview. Then we have a very interactive internal “sense making” process of digesting and diagramming what we’ve heard.
What has been one of the most surprising things you’ve learned while conducting research?
Honestly, it’s always a surprise. Maybe that’s the most surprising thing? This process is so vital because we as designers, researchers, and business people, often think we have already identified the best and most intuitive approach. As strategists, we might have some initial idea of how people will respond and an expectation of the importance of certain features, or what may be a great UX approach. Our clients may have internal opinions of how well they are doing or the importance of a certain offer or product. A business team may have blind spots or long-standing items which have become like unquestionable canon.
But what’s exciting is when we set up an unbiased user test or interview, and give the end-user the opportunity to view and discover things with fresh eyes; we always learn new things. I think that why I gravitate toward research is that excitement and joy of discovery. It’s exciting to spot these trends, to be surprised time and again, and to help the client release their preconceived beliefs and truly meet the needs of their customers.
You were a master’s student in the Human Centered Design & Engineering program at the University of Washington. Throughout your time in this program, what was the single best piece of advice you received?
It really struck me when a UW HCDE instructor shared the idea that she is excited to be proven wrong. When we set-up a discovery process and our research or test subjects open up a whole new viewpoint, it’s really a thrill. We can always learn, and when we’re open to it, our end product and our work are delivered levels above what they otherwise would be. So I guess the heart of that advice was to welcome change and to thrive in the humility that we will often be proven wrong, and that’s great.
The other best advice was to choose my team and projects wisely. About 90% of the program had team-based projects, so I learned early on to listen very intently to my classmates, to assess based on partial early information, and to select and gravitate toward a powerful team. A favorite professor also gave me the useful advice to eat, drink and laugh together, forming strong team bonds, which can then lead to a deep willingness to work hard and support each other. My teammates often become my trusted friends, and I will work very hard alongside them. I’ve been excited to find that is true at Smashing too, where it’s basically a tightly knit supportive family, and an A-Team across the board.
What piece of technology can’t you live without?
Uhhhh. My dishwasher. I like a clean and empty kitchen sink at home.
No really, of course, probably my mobile phone. Or more generally the mobile internet. I can remember in 2001 getting my first “smart phone”, which was this big brick of a phone, but it had really basic web connectivity and I could click through a news feed while eating Thai food at lunch. I remember being so excited by that and my imagination went wild on what else I wished it could do. A couple years later I upgraded to a very early touch screen phone with a little stylus and a really frustrating Windows interface, adapted a little too literally from desktop. Again my mind jumped years ahead imagining the next generation. When the iPhone came out and I saw it for the first time at a dinner party, I watched as a diverse bunch of people just picked it up and effortlessly started swiping through photos without instruction. The world turned and I knew this was something of a breakthrough. That’s how it is for me every time something exciting comes out. I tend to geek out and imagine more possibilities.
What was your last smashing idea?
I literally dream my breakthrough ideas quite often…or at least I think of them as I’m half-awake after dreaming. I like to think that I invented the feature in Google Translate where you can point your camera at something that is written in a foreign language and it translates it visually before your eyes. I woke up about 7 years ago after dreaming that I had a piece of glass that I could look through and read foreign language signs in English. The sign’s graphics and color and context would remain, but the text would scramble and then become English. I woke up and told people about this killer app idea I had. A year later a small company launched an app that did this, then Google bought it and integrated it into their platform. I guess I should have patented it. 🙂
How can researchers and strategists best engage decision-makers and stakeholders in the research process?
I think it may be through results and well-documented evidence. I’ve had nothing but eager, healthy clients here at Smashing who didn’t need a lot of convincing. They actively sought us out and valued our partnership and insights. I try to externalize results as near to real-time as possible, providing video, key quotes, and insights, while walking both our internal design teams and the clients through what we’ve learned on a regular basis. It’s also the Smashing way to create embedded teams with clients onsite and deeply integrated into our processes, so that our healthy processes become their own.
In some past places I’ve worked, the research culture wasn’t as embraced, and even before getting my Masters in HCDE, actually way before even, I managed to demonstrate the benefit of research. For instance, at AT&T, it might have been as simple as gaining approval to do site visits, and walk a mile with our retail reps or call center reps to identify and document pain points in their processes and tools. In relatively short order, I could create a clear list of opportunities, which then served as foundational elements of business cases.
Providing evidence of a needed change is most effectively received by stakeholders and decision makers if you also offer some proposed solutions and remedies. I like to think in terms of short-term wins and long-term wins. So for instance, if I discovered and documented that a certain issue was causing major pain for a rep and their customer, it helped to quantify the issue, build a rough business case and impact analysis, then perhaps strategize a short-term, quick win such as a huddle communication, for reps to execute an effective workaround. This might allow us time to build and launch some agile fixes to code, and ultimately, we might be able to strategize and fund a larger initiative to leap forward to an even more effective solution later.
How has a career in product management helped you shape your role in strategy?
I was an Associate Director and part of a team responsible for some major aspects of the purchase process and client experience in retail and call center customer service at AT&T. With 100 million customers and 100,000 reps dependent on our decisions, I really grew in my ability to spot opportunities, estimate costs, and do quick business cases. We had only so much budget on an annual basis, of which most had to be spent on corporate-designated initiatives, and only a small amount remained to be allocated to the most important projects. I had to uphold my product and ensure that critical items were scoped and funded so that our customers could have the best possible experience.
Now as a strategist at Smashing, this helps me react to research findings, quickly spotting opportunities for our clients. My product management background also nurtured some strong organizational skills, team leadership abilities, and a comfort interacting with, and communicating with, senior executives. Overall, it really helps me understand some of the big business concerns that drive senior leadership decisions.
Now for a very serious question we’ve asked several members of the Strategy team…Star Wars or Star Trek?
In one of your past lives you were a mechanical engineer. What do you bring from that time in your career to your current strategic role?
Well certainly not advanced calculus and differential equations! But there’s an underlying mindset and problem solving role that I loved then and still love and apply now in my strategy work. I’ve always enjoyed living at the intersection of the left and right brain, the technical and creative, the practical and the personal. As a mechanical engineer I worked on complex HVAC (heating ventilation & air conditioning) systems for things like medical research buildings with complex energy recovery systems and ventilation systems which had to pressurize quarantined areas, along with museums which had to meet certain art preservation standards at all times.
This required coordination between creative architects (make it beautiful, with soaring ceilings and emotional impact) and construction contractors (build it square and practical, with lower ceilings so we can pack equipment above). As a mechanical engineer I had to bridge these and ensure it was also mechanically sound.
Moving into software and digital design, I found clear equivalents in my role. I was still an intermediary who could create a bridge between creatives, marketing teams, executive leaders, developers and other roles, and help communicate plans and strategy so they could be executed successfully.
I carry useful things forward from everything I’ve done, from desktop publishing in college, to running my own craftsman furniture business, and even launching a coffee shop from the ground up. Each thing I do feels like another degree and adds tools to my tool belt.
As a strategist, how do you see your role factor into the overall business strategy of a project?
I think that business strategy is one of the main job aspects that differentiates the Strategist role from the Research role. It takes a lot to identify and clearly communicate the key factors that end users and customers might reveal through interviews, contextual inquiries, usability testing or other methods of research. But we have to draw from other sources to synthesize these into effective business strategy.
At Smashing I’ve found that this isn’t an independent role or task, either. We actively collaborate across disciplines, integrating the insights of the researcher, the designer, our own leadership team, and the clients to truly spot, understand, quantify, and communicate the key insights. As Associate Director of Strategy, I have a responsibility to help empower and bring out the best of the team around me to achieve all of this.
Last, but certainly not least…you’re stranded on a remote island, but can have one piece of “equipment” with you. What would it be and why?
Inflatable raft? Ham radio? Genie in a bottle!