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Transformative Digital Experiences
Episode 10

Transformative Digital Experiences

CI to Eye with Mohan Ramaswamy

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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Erik and Mohan discuss their most transformative digital experiences, why focusing on your most heavily used website pages is critical, and how to collaborate to get the best product when working with an outside partner.

Erik Gensler: If you’re enjoying CI to Eye, please share it with a colleague. I also invite you to please rate and comment on iTunes, which helps us get discovered. We love hearing from you on Twitter, Facebook, or the contact form on the Capacity Interactive website. Please don’t be shy and thank you so much for listening. Welcome to CI to Eye. I’m Erik Gensler. I’m an entrepreneur, an arts marketer, and on a lifelong quest to learn and grow personally and professionally. In this podcast, I interview leaders and thinkers inside and outside of arts marketing to understand how we can grow to be the best we can be. My goal: to see eye to eye. I sat down with user experience strategist Mohan Ramaswamy, who is a partner at Work and Co., a Brooklyn-based digital design agency. I’ve collaborated with Mohan and his brilliant colleagues on a number of website redesign projects and was so impressed with his company’s approach to user experience design and project management among many incredible projects. His team is responsible for the redesign of Virgin America’s responsive website, one that I often share because I can buy an airplane ticket on my phone in under a minute.

Mohan Ramaswamy: Having a clear and kind of simple and prioritized experience is something that we really look for in terms of making something great. And that could be anything from purchasing an individual product all the way through figuring out what’s the next piece of content.

Erik Gensler: We talked about our most transformative digital experiences, why a relentless focus on the pages of your site that are most heavily seen and used is critical and how to collaborate to get the best product when working with an outside design partner. So for the folks that don’t know you, I like to start out and just if you could give us a quick professional bio, the elevator pitch version.

Mohan Ramaswamy: So Mohan Ramaswamy, currently a partner at Work and Co., which is a digital product design and development company. Prior to that, I was an engagement manager at McKinsey working on a bunch of different projects in the retail financial services and media sectors. And before that I started the strategy group, a much larger agency called Huge.

Erik Gensler: So you’re an expert in user experience. What is user experience and how do you think about UX?

Mohan Ramaswamy: Well, expert feels like a strong word.

Erik Gensler: I think you’re an expert.

Mohan Ramaswamy: We at Work and Co. think about user experience fairly broadly. It’s how can we make any task that a user wants to complete simple and a more delightful. I think that there’s a little bit of a fallacy in the industry right now that UX is its own practice or it’s this own thing you have to think about, but to us it’s just a component of design overall. You need to think about the function of something in conjunction with how it appears and how it should move and how it interacts. So to us, I think UX is one of the component principles of design similar to typography or similar to how you think about animation and motion and digital.

Erik Gensler: So what are some UX principles that you started to talk about this, but principles that you abide by tips perhaps that you can just give some people some frameworks.

Mohan Ramaswamy: I think that what we see a lot in digital, especially when you’re going to smaller form factors like mobile, is how can you really simplify a flow or an experience? So it’s easy for a user to understand where they are in a process, know what’s kind of coming next, see that they’re able to hit a larger area and actually be able to move on really simply. But most of all, making sure that you’re thinking about all of this in the context of how it fits into an overall design system and that you’re doing a lot of prototyping and iterating along the way. So you’re testing things with users in order to actually make sure that you’re solving a problem in a better way that’s easy for them to understand.

Erik Gensler: Do you remember the first digital experience you had that changed you because it was so extraordinary? I can tell you what mine was.

Mohan Ramaswamy: Yeah, I mean you caught me off guard for a second there. I was like, wow, that’s a deep question. So what was yours?

Erik Gensler: I think the first time when I downloaded Uber and it allowed me to scan my credit card, I thought that was just game-changing and then how Uber only made you put your credit card in once and it just anticipated all of the annoyances about mobile experiences and it sort of had this magic quality to it.

Mohan Ramaswamy: Yeah, I think that was definitely a transformative experience for a lot of users, especially when you saw what the iPhone could do and what a mobile app could do. And being New Yorkers, I think so much of what we see is how hard it was to get a cab at certain points in time. So even the product itself I think was solving a unique problem. I think for me, going back a little bit further, Netflix was probably the first thing that I was really, really excited about. I think as someone who probably watches more TV than I would care to admit, being able to see a much larger catalog have things be a little bit more navigable based on the type of content something was or a specific show versus more of a linear programming approach was cool. And to me it kind of showed the potential direction that content consumption could move towards. I mean I think similarly for a lot of people, Amazon, while not the friendliest experience from a graphic design standpoint, has done a great job thinking about how to at least simplify and streamline the user experience and the flow itself. Everything from that one click checkout to at least having this persistent cart that you can buy things through I think has been great.

Erik Gensler: What do you think is the difference between a good user experience and a digital experience and a great one?

Mohan Ramaswamy: I think that’s a great question and a subjective one In a lot of ways. I think for me and our company’s philosophy as a whole is we’re inspired by the modernist movement and we’re inspired by minimalism to a certain extent. So clarity I think is one of the first things that’s really important for us when we’re thinking about what makes something truly great. Does it have a point of view that’s saying, Hey, these are the one or two things that we’re kind of guide you to while if you want to do something else, that’s great too, but fundamentally we believe these are the one or two things that you need to do next. So I think having a clear and kind of simple and prioritized experience is something that we really look for in terms of making something great. And that could be anything from purchasing an individual product through all the way through figuring out what’s the next piece of content to buy.

I mean I talked about Netflix being transformative I think years ago, but they’ve innovated and I think a lot of it has been in the catalog, a lot has been in figuring out how to get more original programming, but the interface hasn’t changed fundamentally since it was groundbreaking many years ago. And I think that now when I opened Netflix, funnily enough, it’s actually overwhelming because I don’t necessarily know what to find next. They almost don’t have enough of a point of view and I think they’re testing a lot of different things that they always do to say like, Hey, here are the three things we want you to watch. And I find myself turning on the TV simply so I don’t have to make a decision sometimes. And I think TV interfaces are a whole other mess generally, but they at least remove one obstacle of decision-making from you because there’s something that’s happening in real time immediately.

Erik Gensler: Speaking of amazing transformative digital experiences, I think Uber was one for me, but another one was one I know that you worked on and worked on to design, which was the Virgin AmErik a Mobile purchase of flights for Virgin AmErik a flights in the United States. And I thought that was so magical because like you’re saying, it had a real point of view, it made it clear that people are going to airline mobile sites to research and buy tickets and it didn’t try to do much more. In fact, if you were in LA it recognized that you were in LA and it only pulled up the options. I mean primarily for where you’re going to go from LA and so many steps throughout that process. It just anticipated your next step, which probably in 80% of the cases was your next step. And I thought that that was a really magical experience.

Mohan Ramaswamy: Well, thanks a lot. I mean, I think we had been fortunate enough, I think to work with Virgin only a few months after we started the company, and I think they were very brave because they essentially decided to partner with at the time a six person company to design and build their core revenue generating platform. And the brief that they gave us was actually interesting, which was how do you create the first responsive airline website? So that means it’s the same code base that scales appropriately for mobile as it does on desktop. So you need to think about how to create and define a user interface pattern that could work really well regardless of what device that you are on. And I think that as part of that brief, a lot of time we was spent just basically figuring out what’s the core KPI of the experience, and it’s exactly what you said, which is like how do we make sure that this is the best place in the world to research and buy tickets for Virgin AmErik a flights?

I mean, it’s not a crazy KPI to end on, but when you think about airline sites in general, there’s a lot of competing priorities, whether it’s getting someone to sign up for a loyalty program, here are the deals that we want to push this week, how do we make sure that someone can see what our brand looks and feels like through imagery or what have you? And I think that what we were able to kind of align with Virgin on is a lot of the brand was going to be felt through the actual UI and the experience itself, whether it was little tips and copy that were a little tongue in cheek that they can kind of get away with better than other people illustrations and weird avatars that again, are very ownable for them and aren’t necessarily thing that every brand could do, but they feel distinct as opposed to that kind of stock imagery of a couple happily walking down a beach that you see on every airline website.

I mean, what does that have to do with flying there? I mean, I don’t know. And I think that as you look through a lot of the interface design, a lot of it was geared towards making those little moments special and memorable for the brand while creating that consistent pattern that could scale up and down depending on what your device was. So I think the foundational principle that made that work was you’re only going to do one thing at a time. Generally, I think what happens, especially on mobile is it’s very hard to have a cognitive load and to actually balance a page when you have five different things there. It’s like, well, what am I supposed to do next? How do I figure out what the right next step looks like? And by actually pushing it out and not worrying about the number of clicks instead of worrying about, instead worrying about how long it takes someone to get through each step, we were able, I think to create a longer technically in terms of clicks, but a faster and easier flow that worked really well across a lot of devices.

Erik Gensler: I clocked it actually, it took me 29 seconds to go from loading the site from Google and then getting to the point where it’s asking for my name. And I think to the people listening to this podcast, which are mostly arts administrators, buying an airline ticket is I think very similar to buying a theater ticket where you have the curtain opens, the flight takes off, you have a fixed amount of time to consider and purchase, and then you have a fixed number of seats that are priced differently on a number of factors. So there’s a lot of similarities there. I remember from talking to you a while ago that the backend infrastructure of the database that powers flight reservations is complex and has some age to it. And so there were challenges in maneuvering that.

Mohan Ramaswamy: ‘Some age’ is a total understatement here. Generous.

Erik Gensler: Talk about how you work with that.

Mohan Ramaswamy: It’s like how I talk about my grandmother. She has some age to her. So most, I should say not most because it depends on the airline. A lot of them have built their own systems, but the largest one out there is called Sabre. And Sabre is basically pre mainframe software. It’s about as old as it gets, and it’s remarkable that it stood up for that long. But that means that there’s a lot of things with it that are fairly cumbersome, and I think that what you see is that it’s hard to innovate without creating a different layer on top of it. So I think something that does require a little bit of an investment, especially technically, but it’s critical when you’re thinking about how do you build a modern interface on top of a fairly old backend is creating this API layer or a service oriented architecture? And without getting really past either of our depth in the topic, I mean I think that what that at least lets us do is say, Hey, the business logic lives in this one place and it’s transformed into the front end.

And the front end can make those changes or dynamically display information based on what that logic layer is saying. And I think that a lot of arts organizations are hooking in directly to some of these older platforms, and that limits the flexibility of what you can do. So if you invest in creating that middle tier, it can actually help you think about how to design and build something a little more modern. The other benefits of that kind of approach are that as you start to think about all your other digital platforms, whether that’s mobile apps or a kiosk or in theater display, if you have one single logic layer, it can actually, any changes that you make there can dynamically make changes to all of your different kinds of touchpoints from a consumer standpoint. So there’s definitely an upfront investment that’s required and some maintenance that’s required too, but it gives you this flexibility and this extensibility and this ability also to figure out how to do something that’s a little bit more modern and special and unique.

Erik Gensler: And I think you solved a really hard problem to solve, which is the displaying of price on a small screen and on a large airplane. And it’s the same challenge with the arts. How do you display how clearly display price and essentially upsell price in a very tiny screen and allow people to have the larger view of the whole plane and the more zoomed in view of the section that they’re going to choose.

Mohan Ramaswamy: And I mean, I think some of that honestly depends on the size of the plane. So we did a lot of work with a Mexico as well, and I think they have the much, much larger jets, these 787 Dreamliners, than Virgin does. So I think what we were trying to do was at least create sections of a plane so you could still see a zoomed in view of where you were throughout the overall system or the overall plane as opposed to having to see it all first at a glance and then click in. But as you scroll up and down, you kind of figure out where you want to be. It’s easier to get to display pricing basically in a larger way because there’s a finite amount of real estate that you’re using or showing of the plane itself. And it also can help you upsell a little bit more because you push people to the part of the plane, you actually want them to go to You start there. Yeah, exactly. I mean, not necessarily you’re not going to push first class if someone’s interested in buying an economy ticket, but now that everyone’s charging for sitting anywhere on a plane, even middle seats for some airlines, if you’re closer to the front of the plane, you can push people sort of to see that front first, which is a logical place anyway because you’re like that anchors you with where you are on the plane.

Erik Gensler: I’d love to hear more about the Air Mexico project. I haven’t really used that website, but I’m curious too.

Mohan Ramaswamy: Well, I think you should take a trip to Cabo or something. I mean, let’s get out of allergy season here.

Erik Gensler: Seriously, it’s brutal.

Mohan Ramaswamy: And the peso is fairly real low at the moment. So now is the time to go to Mexico. I’m going to pitch that to everyone working for my clients one person at a time.

Erik Gensler: There’s three people listening to this podcast. At least.

Mohan Ramaswamy: Okay, three people at a time. We got three. So Air Mexico was actually cool. I think that we had to take a conscious look, it’s like do we want to work in the same industry and try to solve similar problems again? And I think once we started to go through the process a little bit more with them, it was clear that it was actually a totally different problem in a lot of ways. Solving a challenge internationally and globally with a lot of different storefronts, with a lot of different cultures is really cool. It’s really interesting and you need to have a team that has a lot of different sets of perspectives, one that’s willing to start to learn Spanish, which my team was excited to do. We didn’t quite get where we needed to by the end, but it was always an adventure for us to do user testing and learn a little bit more.

And then really understanding the audience itself where instead of the US and with Virgin where I think we talked about this relentless focus around booking a Mexico visitors, a large chunk of them are actually going there to be inspired and learn about the destinations that they fly to and to dream a little bit more. It’s really a totally different audience. It’s not something I think we think of doing on airline websites. I mean, why would you do that? I’ll go look at Lonely Planet or Conde Nast or something else to get inspired for traveling. But I think that there aren’t great hubs. There are a couple of sites that do that there, but there was a market opportunity as well to create a really rich and interesting destination experience for them. And so we realized we’re basically trying to combine a lonely planet slash TripAdvisor site with Virgin AmErik a and make it work internationally. And that problem became really cool and to also help an organization that was ramping up their own internal tech efforts and in the midst of a digital transformation get along the way and help them build their capabilities. So that was a really interesting project that just launched live in March, I believe, and we’ve been doing a little bit of optimizing, still adding some more features and they I think are getting ready to hand it off to themselves soon.

Erik Gensler: Wow. What do think, what part of that side are you most excited about?

Mohan Ramaswamy: I think that the booking flow and the homepage and all that stuff are really nice, but having worked on Virgin two is like, that part is great. We figured this stuff out. We figured out how to upsell, I think pretty well. But to me, the content part of the experience was really cool. There’s this one page that has all their destinations in kind of a very beautiful laid out view with these little icons that are essentially associated with each of the individual cities. So that’s probably my favorite part of the site. And then when you click into an individual city, it actually feels pretty luxurious and it gives you a little bit of local feel for all the places that they fly to. And they even have pulled in things from TripAdvisor and created their own content and stories and it’s kind of like an interesting hub to get lost in. Again, I wouldn’t have thought to do that on an airline website, but there was room for them to do that, particularly in the Mexican market.

Erik Gensler: And it was research driven, which I’ve always a couple of projects we’ve worked in, I’ve been really impressed with the level of research you guys do. Can you talk a little bit about how you use research and analytics to inform your design?

Mohan Ramaswamy: Yeah. I think that we actually take a little bit of a weird approach to all of that because we tend to design from day one and then in parallel to that ramp up a series of more traditional strategy and discovery activities. So that’ll be where you have your competitive research, your deeper understanding of a site’s analytics to identify opportunities like figuring out what the content strategy looks like. I think the reason we try to do that is we want the team to have some initial ideas that are a little bit less constrained by reality. Most of that work is not going to be used, but what we found is giving a little bit more of an open canvas can lead to a solution we wouldn’t have necessarily thought about if we started with more research driven or requirements driven approach. In parallel, we don’t want to just make vaporware.

So as that strategy stuff gets ramped up, how does it inform what that design pattern looks like or that user experience is shaped to be and how do we prioritize the work that we’re undertaking? The other thing we really try to do at the start of the project is align on a small number of KPIs. So that can focus not only what each page or what part of the experience should be looked at as much as anything. It also I think does a good job of focusing our own time and scope. So selfishly, in an ideal world, we want to spend 80% of the time on any project working on the pages that are most heavily seen and most heavily used and drive revenue. And I think that’s slightly controversial because historically you see a lot of companies or a lot of teams say, I want this section of the site to have that representation because they have their own unique stakeholders and all of that, and we need to make sure we have that much care. But if it’s not driving revenue and 2% of users are seeing it, why are you spending as much time on that as the core transactional flow?

Erik Gensler: Yeah, so Yosaif, our director of analytics here, and you worked together in another life, another career life I guess, but years ago. Yeah, he’s always saying —

Mohan Ramaswamy: Yeah, he’s aged better than me, though.

Erik Gensler: He’s always talking about that exact principle. Like arts organizations spend so much time and effort say on the homepage, but when you dig into the data, 20% of people who don’t start at the homepage are actually going there, or maybe it’s less than that. 20% of people start there and then far less than that actually navigate there. And if they are navigating there, it’s because they’re not finding what they want. But when you break down the time and effort and team focus on that page, it’s completely disproportionate.

Mohan Ramaswamy: I mean, everyone in the company has it set as their default page when they open up their internet browser, it has to look good. That has to be where you spend the most time. I think that homepage is, or their own challenge, I think that they’re also viewed as the representation of the brand, but I completely agree with the point overall, which is how do you make sure that where you’re investing the most time and the most testing and the most care are those pages that are used by more of your visitors as well as the ones that are really driving the business. And I think that there’s been too many years and too much time of we need to spend this much time making the world’s best settings page or account page. Versus thinking through, okay, if I had the team focused on figuring out the checkout flow for another week, how much more would that help me?

And I’m being a little tongue in cheek because I think a lot of clients are getting that. It just so happens that the way organizations are structured, sometimes the incentives are a little bit misaligned because everyone wants to make sure that their part of the business is accounted for and taken care of as well as possible.

Erik Gensler: That makes sense. And for the arts, that’s really the production or event detail page because that’s really where most people are coming in from search or social and then really making the purchase decision.

Mohan Ramaswamy: Yeah, I mean, how do you get people excited and then most importantly get them to start going into the checkout flow to purchase a ticket and select a date? So I think that in the past when we’ve worked with arts organizations, that’s been a huge focus of the amount of time we’ve spent on a project because it’s, I think arguably the most special page in any experience. It’s getting you set up for what you’re going to see, getting you excited about who’s there, learning a little bit more about the actual performance, and then once you’re kind of into that checkout flow, it helps build that anticipation and gets you more excited to complete that purchase.

Erik Gensler: Absolutely. Let’s talk a little bit about your process and your project management. And through my career, I’ve worked with a number of web development and design firms, and I think your approach is really unique and I think that’s good, right? No, it’s amazing, and I think what was really recognizable to me is the difference was the focus on prototyping. What is prototyping and how does that process work?

Mohan Ramaswamy: Sure. So I think prototyping can be means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and honestly it can be a lot of different things too. We want to make sure that because we’re designing digital and interactive experiences, whether it’s a website or a touchscreen device or something that’s like an in-store display, these products are meant to be used by people. So if we just put up flat comps of things, we’re doing a disservice honestly to the problem itself because it’s not how anyone will actually interact or engage with the actual end product. So prototype can be anything from something that’s lightweight. Envision for example, lets you just upload a bunch of p and gs into a phone and that lets you actually as a user scroll up and down on your device. That helps. Then you can kind of link to other parts of the experience and that’s like the roughest and easiest prototype.

So if you don’t know how to code at all and you haven’t spent that much time with designing, putting files even in that format can help you see what the experience feels like a little bit more. From there, you can go into I think higher fidelity prototypes, so that could be anything. I think a lot of our designers right now are using principle, which works really well with Sketch, which is our primary design software at the moment, where that helps you see what motion animations and what a flow can really feel like. And then ideally what happens once you start doing that which is only a few weeks into a project, you put it in front of other people, whether it’s the designer or developer or product manager next to you or actual users or people you recruited from Craigslist all the way through formal surveys. I think that getting your ideas in front of people as quickly as possible is the goal here and trying to move away from what we call design thinking into let’s sketch and let’s put something in people’s hands because that will inform what the ultimate product is better than anything we can just talk about.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, it was amazing to me. I think it was within the first few weeks of one project we worked together, you had this amazing interactive experience and that really shaped and began the iteration process for what ultimately became an amazing website.

Mohan Ramaswamy: And I think that if we hadn’t done that, it would’ve been hard to imagine how the transitions itself would’ve felt or how the hover state would’ve worked or how even scrolling, I think there were some cooling scrolling patterns that were happening in that particular page performed. The other thing that it did, and I’m sure this too, is there are a lot of different people who will interpret things differently if they’re not seeing it together, if they’re not seeing it in some sort of prototype. So when you’re able to see how something moves and how it feels, it’s not, you’re removing that layer of interpretation. And I think clients, whether they’re in the arts or anywhere really I think are receptive to seeing how something should behave and that helps build some confidence that this is pretty cool and this is the right idea, and it’s also I think a lot better as you’re syndicating things more broadly to share or have a prototype that people can use and interact with versus here’s a presentation. Again, leaves too much stuff open for interpretation, leaves too many questions unanswered.

Erik Gensler: I’ve worked on, and this is going back years, but where you’re year into the project before you really see anything, and that’s just so different than how you guys do it.

Mohan Ramaswamy: Hopefully that doesn’t happen anymore.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, I don’t know. That’s probably, that was a long time ago, but I remember and you ended up with this book of the requirements document. Every single page was…

Mohan Ramaswamy: Functional annotations?

Erik Gensler: And it was like this 300 page book with every description and once you signed off on it, if you made a change, you don’t want to do that, then the change order started.

Mohan Ramaswamy: Yeah, I mean, I think in all honesty, we still have to do some of that documentation, especially for something that’s complex, but handing off a prototype in addition to that, if we’re not doing the development or if we are having our developers do the prototype and then transition, it again removes that layer of interpretation, especially around something feels, and that I think is what we all expect from modern experiences. The web is moving to a place where it feels more like an app. A lot of the things we’re creating are these single page applications, so they feel faster, they feel snappier that you’re moving through something and that there’s progress that’s being made. And it’s like that motion and those transitions and that experience is what you associate with something like being a good or great experience in the end.

Erik Gensler: That’s right. That’s right. And that’s exactly right. The Virgin AmErik a app is incredibly fast and it’s provides lots of positive reinforcement. It’s coaching you to the next step, which I think is one of the things that makes it remarkable.

Mohan Ramaswamy: So we just designed and built a new website for Aldo, the shoe slash clothing company in Canada. And I think in addition, I think to elevating the brand a little bit by showing their products, I think in a more premium environment as they’re continuing to create nicer and newer things as opposed to just being more focused on trend. One of the things I think that makes that experience really special is the build itself and the fact that it feels more like a web application as opposed to a website that things load kind of progressively as you’re going through the experience. The checkout’s like one page. So I’m into this site, so I’m talking about a lot of different things, but I think that that build is a real extension of what the vision was for the product design in the first place. And if you didn’t kind of take that modern approach to development, it would feel like any other e-commerce experience in a lot of ways it’d be laid out really well, but really what makes it special is how we’re using technology to make the experience feel more modern.

Erik Gensler: To go back to the question I asked earlier is what makes a good versus great web experience? I think, and I’ve noticed this on the sites that you guys build, it’s the small tiny details of how a page loads and the sequence of what loads and there, there’s a beautiful art to it if done well.

Mohan Ramaswamy: Yeah, and while it’s loading, you need to figure out what that right transition or animation feels like. Sometimes you want to add a little bit of time because you want to make sure that people realize that the system is thinking and it’s showing some smart intelligence. Other times you get really nervous, for instance, when it takes too long for a payment call to be made. So how can you show progress or make sure that you don’t hit refresh or that something’s broken? So I think technology in particular is continuing to be what can define a really great experience.

Erik Gensler: I think Lyft is doing that while too. It’s like we’re putting the final touches on your ride, you’re really mind sharing. I think they’ve done a really good job. You live in New York, you’re relying on it.

Mohan Ramaswamy: Aren’t you a Brooklynite? Yeah. You don’t take green taxis anymore?

Erik Gensler: No, no. I’m curious in your world, what percentage of projects start with an RFP and how that makes a project easier or not? And if you can talk about what makes an RFP process good, and what are the pain points? Because we’re out there in our experience with arts organizations many times doing website projects is not something they’re used to doing. It’s not like a big company that has a department of people who are actively iterating and managing web products. And so these websites…

Mohan Ramaswamy: And it’s a big investment for them too.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, it’s a huge investment and it’s not like this is something that happens all the time, so we’ll see organizations go directly to vendors and not be incredibly clear about what they’re looking for. And so I think it really slows the process down and we’re really out there encouraging people to write out an RFP and really think through about what your priorities are, and that could evolve, but just interested in your take on what that looks like in your more commercial world.

Mohan Ramaswamy: I don’t think it’s too dissimilar. I mean, I think we encourage and spend time creating a brief, so whether it’s an RFP or not, I think that it’s actually a relatively small percentage of our projects that are RFP, maybe a quarter of them since so much of our work is from our existing clients who we’ve had longer term relationships with, but at the start of any projects with them, even a continuation of an existing project or even something where we’re working in a retained capacity where we want to make sure that we’re getting the most out of each sprint. We make sure that we spend a fair amount of time actually getting a clear brief together, and that’s something we co-develop with them. And to be frank, that’s our ideal process, obviously, because it’s not a competitive situation, but I think that a good RFP is serving those same needs in a lot of ways where rather than being a comprehensive list of here are all the questions and specifics that we want to get from you about your organization and all that, I think a lot of that stuff, frankly, is better served in a presentation.

It’s a little more of a description as to what the problem is, what you’re trying to solve, what you understand about your existing audience, how you’re trying to, what the goals and KPIs for the new experience look like, and getting to a place of also, frankly, being transparent about here’s what we’re thinking in terms of a timeline and budget. And I know that can sometimes be thorny for companies, but having that qualification done I think is a reasonable thing versus saying like, oh, you tell us what this should be because in your head you’ve already thought about and set parameters for both cost and launch timeline. So I think that we want to make sure that we’re aligned and that it’s realistic expectations on both sides when we get started, when it’s an RFP process, again in a briefing stage, those questions become simpler, frankly, because you just ask your existing client, honestly. It’s like, all right, what budget do you have for this? Let’s see how we can make that work.

Erik Gensler: Right? And we’re out there pushing too and saying, come on, give some range of budget because it takes a company like yours so much time and effort to go through this, and I really want to encourage marketers and people who work in-House at an organization to recognize it’s so expensive for a company to respond to an RFP. And so the easier you can make that and say, this is our budget, it allows organizations like yours to say, okay, this makes sense for us or this doesn’t, and here’s perhaps someone else you should talk to. So what can clients do to get the best work from a partner?

Mohan Ramaswamy: It’s a great question. I think that it touches on a few of the different topics that we’ve covered so far. For me, the first is defining a very clear small set of goals and KPIs for what you’re looking for. How will this be measured as a success? What are you trying to achieve? What’s currently not working well? So fully committing and communicating, understanding those things at the start of the project I think is really important for us. The second thing just ties into the point we were making just around how do we make sure that we’re tapping into your expertise, your audience really well, your industry really well, your business rules and your crazy technology stack really well. I mean, yeah, sometimes we’re going to want to replatform things, but there’s so much inherent knowledge that not having a close collaborative partnership is doing a disservice to the work.
So that means having someone who’s a dedicated sponsor who is allocated to this project full-time as opposed to just being someone who kind of comes in and out a little bit, making sure that we have all the different senior people in the room during a review at the same time. I know that’s really hard to schedule, but this is a big investment for you, so you need to take that part seriously in order to get great work. Because I think what we found is that when you have the head of technology and the cmmo and the head of the business or the head of the product, head of the brand or whomever, depending on how your organization is structured, when you have them all in the same room, hilariously enough, they’re not in the same room that often. So it’s good for them to spend a little bit of time and understand each other’s priorities and see how they’re reacting to work, and we can help workshop and solve those problems in real time where there are these competing priorities on a given part of the experience.

But if we’re doing things serially or if certain people aren’t involved until a little bit later, that tension and that problem solving doesn’t exist. So I think that it does require a fairly substantive commitment from a client in order to do good work, and hopefully that’s part of the reason why they’re too, is you’re excited about the project being undertaken. And I know that people are spread very thin and on a lot of different types of experiences or different types of initiatives at any point in time, but it’s really important to have that collaboration in order to be successful.

Erik Gensler: And that collaboration just takes time.

Mohan Ramaswamy: And it takes effort, and it also puts, I think, a lot of people in a place that’s a little less comfortable for them because historically, most people who are running a website or a mobile app redesign haven’t done it before. It’s rare when you get someone who’s done a bunch of those different projects, I mean maybe in the valley, but outside of that —

Erik Gensler: One thing that gives me chills is when I talk to an executive director of a large organization that says, well, I have a board member whose friend has a company and they’re going to do our new website for like $50,000. And I’m like, oh, dear God. I personally think and know that good design and good websites are not cheap. Why is it so expensive, relatively, just to make the case to leaders of arts organizations about investing in this kind of infrastructure and what you get from someone doing it at a really high level versus the friend of a friend of a board member. And I recognize that you come with certain implicit bias from that, but that given, tell us what you really think.

Mohan Ramaswamy: Yeah, I mean to sing for my supper briefly, I think that honestly what we believe is that you need time and you need dedicated resources, and you need people who have a little bit more experience working in this way in order to solve a problem uniquely. And that’s not a unique or really special kind of thing to say. I think it’s just reality. But where it comes down to is that when you’re thinking about a web experience or a lot of these digital products experiences, it’s how most visitors are going to actually engage with you. It’s typically the front door of an experience, whether you’re purchasing a ticket or doing research or even learning where the theater is, it’s also going to be a place where anyone who’s outside of the particular region is going to engage with you. So when you think about how much time and care that goes into each performance or the theater itself, multiply that by a hundred and you probably have your visitors to a website for instance, and if everyone is interacting with that, that’s going to be the representation of how they think about you as an arts institution.

And I think that that’s where thinking about how the brand should live and evolve, which is no small thing, gets folded into that thinking about how do we make sure we’re on the right technical stack and that we have something that’s maintainable and usable. Long-term goes into that thinking about how do we create a design that if it can’t be timeless is at least something that can withstand the tests of time in a fairly malleable way where you don’t need to redesign something in a year or two because it didn’t meet your needs. I think the other part of the problem that exists when you do these sites on the cheap is everyone’s incentive to do it as quickly as possible, which is great if you want to get something into market that’s rushed. I don’t think that works from a tech standpoint period, but at least from a design standpoint, it’s like, oh, we’re going to just do all of this together, but it means that you missed a million requirements.

It means you didn’t understand some of the different business problems. It means you didn’t take a step back and actually evaluate the landscape and think through your business goals a little more broadly. So you’re going to keep doing that with a, I think a higher degree of frequency than if you take a step back and do the process right once, and that’s a once every three four year process for an arts institution. For other companies, it’s a continuous process, but it depends on what share of revenue is coming through there and what your resource capacity looks like.

Erik Gensler: A site launch is just the beginning, right? You’re just talking about the idea of optimization and iterative design With your more commercial clients, are you seeing more of a trend like Amazon where they’re constantly iterating and constantly testing, or are you still seeing the pattern of okay, every three, four or five years we’re saying this website looks old, we now have to start over again?

Mohan Ramaswamy: I think that the industry is moving as a whole, which is awesome, and this is something that we’ve seen even since we’ve founded Work and co compared to where we were a few years ago. We’re seeing that people understand that they can build brands and solve large scale problems through continuous improvement in digital. And that’s not just digital native companies like Slack or a Casper or someone like that who literally hooed traditional advertising to build these great brands. That’s also companies. When you look at someone like Apple who’s going to continually reinvest in their web experience and build a big team to do that work, mean not everyone those has 300 billion of cash lying around, but they are continuously trying to evolve what their website looks like. I think you see a lot of the antiquated and larger financial institutions doing similar things where they’re iteratively releasing new code and updating parts of the experience because they know that little tweaks can help increase applications or drive engagement.
All retailers, I think, are pretty much taking the same approach where they know that tweaking the checkout flow or making these smaller improvements can lead to millions of dollars of impact. So with Virgin going back, we actually outlasted our clients now that they’re all moved on to new places. But with Virgin, I think we saw, we’ve been optimizing the website and working with them continuously since the initial launch in June, 2014. So it’s crazy because that initial project took nine or 10 months and we’ve been optimizing the site for three years since then. The core experience is exactly the same in a lot of ways. The brand is the same, and I think it’s lasted and withstood the test of time until this merger, but they had a bunch of additional features that they wanted to think about. There were different kinds of optimizations. So everything from how do you get new kinds of ancillary or upsells throughout that flow, how do we figure that out? How do we merge these two loyalty programs together? A lot of different kinds of interesting, new challenges come up because the website is the best representation of who they are, and it’s where we were talking about the majority of their customers are engaging or potential customers in a lot of ways.

Erik Gensler: Isn’t it amazing how the AB testing we do on behalf of our clients, how such minor tweaks can make such a big difference? It’s shocking. Something as simple as moving a buy tickets button can have a huge impact on the number of people who click it.

Mohan Ramaswamy: Yeah, I think we had done a bunch of AB testing with a couple of large content clients actually several years ago, and saw that changing the color of blue and the weight of a line somehow impacted conversion. And I have to be honest, these are things I don’t fully understand. We definitely test two statistical significance, but it’s like, okay, well does this work everywhere or is this only for this particular client? Is there this color of blue that we should use across every single website? I have no idea, but I think even those small tests and small improvements can have legitimate impacts at the bottom line, even if they’re a little bit unexplainable.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, I think when I’ve presented some of these findings at conferences, I’ve heard people, the takeaway was like, we need to move our buy tickets button up the page. And in my mind, the takeaway no is you need to do AB testing. We’re not telling you, we’re not prescribing. The answer is you need to test it for yourself.

Mohan Ramaswamy: Well, the buy tickets moving up on the page feels like a universal solution.

Erik Gensler: That’s probably true.

Mohan Ramaswamy: But I definitely, maybe you have to pick a more controversial choice to sell an AB testing.

Erik Gensler: A couple of other ones we’ve done that were interesting, and we’ve written about this on our blog, so if you’re a frequent CI blog reader, you’ve read about this, but changing a hyperlink into a button to a call experience. So if someone mobile site say isn’t the best checkout experience, if you make the call box office instead of a small hyperlink at the bottom page, if you turn that into a bolder button as an additional option to transact, I think it was a 60% increase in calls or something like us, our director of analytics, he hates automatic homepage scrollers because it’s like carousels, carousels because it allows people to have indecision. It’s like, oh, we’ll just put it there because it will make everyone happy. Well, this department can display their thing there. This department can display their thing there. So it sort of ends up, it’s like a compromise design decision, but —

Mohan Ramaswamy: The worst kind of, yeah…

Erik Gensler: He actually did some AB testing and found that when he took the carousel away, it actually had better results. More people were clicking and engaging.

Mohan Ramaswamy: That’s cool. I’m going to reuse that one. We definitely load carousels. I think we, when at all possible push away from them and when we have them not having them be automatic’s, definitely a point of view. So it’s like, okay, if you really want to bury this content there, great, but it’s distracting when you’re just sitting there and you’re like, alright, what’s happening here?

Erik Gensler: And most people aren’t going to a homepage of a site being like, Hmm, I wonder what they’re promoting. Let’s just wait and let’s go through these five different slides and then decide what we’re going to do.

Mohan Ramaswamy: Well, I guess I’m doing the same thing that you were saying. Everyone else is where I’m like, oh man, no carousels on homepage.

Erik Gensler: You should test that.

Mohan Ramaswamy: I feel confident with that one though. Again, I like it.

Erik Gensler: Good.

Mohan Ramaswamy: I like having the data point.

Erik Gensler: I guess people can take whatever they want from all of these facts. So a little more personally, you lead a pretty large team, and I’m always curious to learn what you’ve learned about leadership and managing people.

Mohan Ramaswamy: Yeah, I think it’s a continued evolution for me, honestly. I think that it’s been crazy going from a team, it was 30 or 40 people a couple years ago to one that’s over 200. You don’t really know how to make that jump until you do it, and it’s a continued learning process. I mean, I think that’s the first thing I would say. What I found to be the most useful thing is just talking and listening to people, but probably in the reverse order, listening to people and then potentially talking where you’re giving them a little bit of a platform to explain what they’re seeing that’s happening in the company itself, especially the ones who’ve been there for a meaningful amount of time and have seen this kind of change. Some of it is of just, of course, oh, it’s different now and yeah, it is, but look around.

There are all these amazing talented people and these amazing projects that we have around us. So those are good things, and it’s trying to understand, well, what are the parts of that growth, which I think is one of the things that’s the hardest for people because the feeling changes a little bit. What are the things about that growth where you feel like your day-to-day has changed? And that could be something like, well, I don’t have as much visibility into what the other projects in the company are, or, Hey, there isn’t a great way for me to meet these other people who’ve started, and it feels like there are all these new people, and I’ve never had that time to connect. And I think it’s things that you kind of take for granted, especially as a leader, because you’ve probably talked to everyone. I mean, because either interviewed or hired them, or you’ve been involved in kind of onboarding them or staffing them on projects or any of that kind of stuff.

So I think for me, it was kind of sometimes forgetting that we need to create these ways to share work better, to provide connectivity between employees a little bit better, to understand that, hey, the right balance of projects needs to be more like this. It’s time for us to take another arts client, or it’s time for us to figure out how to work on this kind of technology. So I guess it’s a very long-winded way of saying, I think listening and making sure that we still have a pulse on what the team is looking for has been the biggest thing to make sure that we’re continuing to be good leaders as much as anything else. I mean, I think you can read a lot and there’s a lot of great articles and all that kind of stuff, but for me personally, I feel like my team knows how to make me better, better than anyone else does.

Erik Gensler: That’s interesting. Speaking of reading, are there any blogs or news sites that you follow to help you get better at your job?

Mohan Ramaswamy: I mean, I’m a little bit caught up in the downfall of humanity at the moment.

Erik Gensler: So the New York Times and Washington Post.

Mohan Ramaswamy: Yeah, democracy’s dying in darkness. The new Christopher Nolan movie is deemed best case. That was pretty funny. Aside from that, I mean, I think there’s a lot of the usual suspects where we’re looking at Wired, at Fast Company, at TechCrunch just to get a pulse on what’s happening in technology in particular and what are the interesting kinds of things that people are talking about. Frankly, I get a lot of information from Twitter. Just figure out a bunch of people who are interesting to follow, and you can curate your own experience or your own vision of it. Of course, that’s also co-mingled with a lot of thoughts on democracy, but that’s okay too because it’s helpful to keep reading and seeing what’s happening.

Erik Gensler: Totally. I mean, I think that’s one of the other things about leadership is just keeping an eye on the world and what’s happening in the world.

Mohan Ramaswamy: Yeah, it’s actually an interesting point because for us, we’re a company that has a large number of immigrants. We’ve never cared where people were from in the interview process or hiring. And I think that we as partners are majority immigrants or first generation AmErik ans like myself. So the policies and the happenings of the world are really important at the moment from a recruiting standpoint, from making sure our employees feel confident and comfortable. And we’ve kind of been fairly outspoken just in terms of filing the amicus briefs in support of the sanctuary cities, filing amicus briefs against the travel ban, all that kind of stuff. Because I think that we have to live up to the values of what we’re preaching to our employees as well as frankly, I think what’s helped us be successful. And I think you see a lot of companies in the Valley and a lot of companies, period, who’ve also benefited from open immigration in a lot of ways, open legal immigration in a lot of ways, taking similar stands, because I think that having that impact on our talent, and frankly we work on a lot of projects around the world, it is hard.

It’s something that I don’t want to fight. It’s hard enough running a business.

Erik Gensler: It’s hard enough. Yeah.

Mohan Ramaswamy: I don’t need to have these other hurdles that are artificially manufactured and we’re building global products, whether it’s for Apple or Facebook or Aero Mexico or whatever. If we didn’t have people with different perspectives outside of our own, how on earth could we create an experience that will work well in Asia or Europe or Africa or Mexico? And I think it’s naive to think that the digital experiences that we create are possible without having a broader worldview.

Erik Gensler: Absolutely. So that’s a good time to come to our last question, which is your CI to Eye moment. And that’s, if you could broadcast to the executive directors, leadership teams and boards of say a thousand arts organizations, what advice would you provide to help them improve their business?

Mohan Ramaswamy: I think that the first thing would be to understand that it’s worth investing in your digital properties as a source of growth and revenue. So that can be a smaller thing where it’s like, what I want to do is help reimagine what a checkout flow could look like, because my analytics show me that I’m losing a lot of people in this part to thinking about a broader project where there’s an opportunity to think about what’s the actual brand experience? How do I make sure that the joy of the show or the performance itself or the museum or what have you is communicated through digital. So much of that is lost when you have an old experience and when you’re not thinking about how digital can serve as that way for growth. So I think the big thing I would say is look at your data and figure out what are the short-term opportunities for you to tap into digital. And some of them could be very tactical, and some of it could be there’s a wholesale opportunity to reimagine what we’re doing. But I guarantee for everyone there is lots of untapped revenue and growth that can be driven by that investment.

Erik Gensler: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much.

Mohan Ramaswamy: Thanks for having me.

Erik Gensler: Did you enjoy the podcast? Please join Capacity Interactive on email and on Facebook so you can be the first to know when we release new episodes. You’ll also get content all about digital marketing for the arts, and you’ll be the first to know about our webinars, workshops, and our annual digital marketing bootcamp. Thanks for listening.

About Our Guests
Mohan Ramaswamy
Mohan Ramaswamy
Partner, Work and Co

Digital strategist Mohan Ramaswamy is a partner at Work and Co, a digital design agency based in Brooklyn, New York. His team is responsible for Virgin America’s responsive website (a favorite of Erik’s!).

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