Tracey Halvorsen

President & Chief Visionary Officer at Fastspot

Tracey Halvorsen

President & Chief Visionary Officer at Fastspot Episode 19

Episode Notes

Episode Transcript

Gary:
Hello, and welcome to Episode 19 of DesignEDU Today, the podcast series discussing topics concerning the state of interactive design education at institutions of higher learning. I am your host, Gary Rozanc, Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Today’s guest is Tracey Halvorsen. Tracey is President and Chief Visionary Officer at Fastspot an interactive design agency in Baltimore Maryland. Her background in visual art and computer-based technology and her hands-on style of leadership has helped Fastspot consistently create award-winning and industry recognized websites, applications and marketing campaigns.

Tracey, known for her innovative thinking and creative problem solving, is never short on opinions or ways to make things better, and she shares these observations in Fastspot’s blog and through in-person presentations and workshops. Tracey keeps her focus on big-picture trends and how business is evolving and transforming within the interactive marketing arena. She ensures Fastspot engages with the “right” clients and works to inspire her team and colleagues to deliver outstanding results.

Tracey has been a speaker and presenter at numerous industry events and conferences including one of 2010 SXSW’s most talked about presentations entitled, “We F*cked Up.  Now What?  Exploring Failure with Happy Cog and Friends”. More recently Tracey presented “Become a Storymaker” at Confab London as well as “Creating Healthy Client Relationships” at Owner Summit and “The Art of Content” at the Wharton Web Conference in 2015.

Welcome, Tracey.

Tracey:
Hello!
Gary:
Hi. Thank you so much for being here today; I really appreciate it.
Tracey:
Sure; thanks for the invitation.
Gary:
So, before I get into my specific questions, can you talk a little bit about Fastspot in regards to the type of work you take on, beyond what you say you do on the website and the type of work that you are frequently asked to do: does this synch up with the work that you actually do?
Tracey:
Fortunately it does synch up or I’d be doing a lot of things differently, I suppose, but I think that the kind of work we look for is work that involves a lot of problem-solving that goes beyond simply a designer technology solution. It’s amazing to me how much a website can transform an organization, not just from the story it tells to the outside world, but the way it makes people think about how they’re working together, what they’re doing for their audiences, what their main priorities are in their jobs; when you really do a successful website project, it can really be impactful and the most impactful ones are the ones where we get to come in and solve real problems. And I think that lends us to working with organizations that already are predisposed to caring a lot; these aren’t people who are…this is not Fortune 500, ecommerce-heavy investor-bound kind of start-ups; these are organizations like higher education institutions, associations, non-profits that tend to attract people who really care about what they’re doing and really care about the people that they’re servicing and it makes a difference in our ability to collaborate with them.
Gary:
So, what does the work look like that you do on a regular basis; is it mostly website? Is it a mix of website and app? Do people even ask for email templates? Is it branding? Can you give a snapshot of what the modern interactive design agency works on?
Tracey:
Sure. I think we’re probably a little bit unique in that most of our focus is on websites. I do think there are a lot of agencies out there that offer a little bit of everything and we do end up supporting our clients once we’ve gone through a website project, we really know them well at that point and we’ve built a lot of trust up over the period of the project so we’ll end up continuing on and working with clients on email templates or doing some micro-site work or additional things they want to spin up. Apps seem to be a little bit of a flash in the pan; we’ve seen those die out a little bit as people realize how competitive it is and how specific that app needs to be targeted to succeed. We saw a lot of people asking and thinking that the app was going to be the Holy Grail to all their problems a couple of years ago but that’s changed a bit, so for us it’s really primarily websites. And it’s large, complicated websites with content management systems put into place and a lot of focus on content strategy and prepping the teams to maintain those sites once they’re launched.
Gary:
I have a follow-up question about the apps versus websites and I’m using this in the context, when I’m in the classroom, I’m telling students that they really need to learn web because they really are excited, like, no, I want to mock up an app and it’s like, the website can do the same thing that an app can do: well, a majority of it. A lot of that technology that is only accessible via the native app is now accessible through browsers. So, how much do you think that’s come into play as well is the fact that the evolution of HTML5 and how browsers can access the features of a device?
Tracey:
I think that’s been a big part of the, again, the flash in the pan effect with apps so a lot of what an app could do now a website can do, and it can, if it’s fully responsive, it can mimic an app; it can work great on a smart-phone which was I think a lot of the early appeal of the app is that it was a stand-in for what non-responsive websites couldn’t do. But the barrier to entry with a website is a lot lower than an app; you don’t need someone to go somewhere and download something and sort of install it on their device. It’s just the web is a much more fertile playing field and I think that’s where people need to have a really good reason to go for an app versus a website.
Gary:
All right. And so, lately, this has got me thinking about the process of interactive design, specifically versus print design. I believe that there are a lot of differences that make it increasingly harder for students coming out of print only and print-heavy programs transition to interactive design positions. To give you a more specific example, when you design a poster, the process is the same where it comes to you do your research, you do your thumbnail, you do your tight sketches, you do a computer mock-up and then you do a final print. But that final print is fixed size: there’s only one size that it’s going to be viewed at, period. Whereas in interaction design, your mock-ups, unless you create five hundred different mock-ups, you can’t replicate all the different user experiences, so I’m curious (a) how ready are students or young professionals when they come into the industry to work with this and (b) what’s your process at Fastspot to manage that, the client expectations and all these other aspects of it?
Tracey:
That’s good! Bunch of good questions in there. I agree with you, I think it is night and day between the world of print and the world of interaction design and to me, one of the biggest things, and I even see people who’ve been building websites or certainly designing and building websites for years, they still forget about this: at the end of the project, you hand this thing off and it needs to be prepared for almost everything within it to change, and it needs to be changeable by the people you give it to and that change will impact the people who look at it, so you’re handing over something that needs to be very malleable and flexible and yet at the same time, very targeted and very organized so that it doesn’t fall apart when all of that change starts happening and we’re not building interaction design for entertainment, so that people can sit back and just hit some buttons and be wowed by what happens; it’s really for sharing content and people have to think about that when they’re building these things: how is this going to best serve what this particular business or organization needs to do with this particular bit of content, so, understanding that and diving deep into that early on is a lot of where we spend our time and energy. So, I think that that’s a big problem that students need to get their minds around is that they’re not, especially if you’re a print designer and you’re so used to, once something goes to press, it’s done: it’s out into the world for all to enjoy. That certainly is the complete opposite with a website: it’s never fixed and done.

In terms of managing client expectations with all of the different experiences that we need to plan for in a fully responsive type of environment, that’s a very interesting space and there’s a lot of good dialogue around how best to approach it. At Fastspot we tend to…we really like to start out with a wide canvas, sort of a high-fidelity canvas and then boil it down from there. There are a lot of people who say you should be designing and thinking about mobile first but from our experience, it’s harder to span that up and I think you end up playing a different kind of game that becomes more of a decorative game or a more impartial decision-making process about how that content starts to stagger out and spread as you go from mobile to tablet, let’s say, to desktop or laptop, versus making decisions once you have the full canvas: all right, not we’re going to start making decisions to pull this down and whittle it down; that allows us to have I guess a more fluid conversation with the client and it brings up harder conversations; I think it’s easier to start out with things that you can say, these three things are all important, they’re all going to be on, let’s say, the top level of the experience on a desktop. Well, now we have to start talking about how they’re going to stack in a mobile and then you’re having more productive conversations versus having the stack predetermined and then it becomes a little bit more impartial about what you pull up. Does that make sense?

Gary:
I am so glad you said that, because I’ve read everywhere: mobile first, mobile first and I get it, I totally understand it, but when I’m in the classroom, trying to teach from mobile first, it just doesn’t make sense to the students.
Tracey:
Right, well you know, you’ve got designers too and as a fine artist, I will tell you that sometimes, you really want the bigger canvas to really express yourself and to really have some room to explore and when you’re working with mobile first, you’re really starting with a limited palette and that’s great: there’s a lot of amazing things can be done within limitation and restriction, but to always be starting there and then adding on when you need to serve the other half of the audience, which right now we’re kind of at this fifty-fifty split in a lot of situations between people who are coming on desktop, laptop and people who are coming on mobile and tablet and I think that it’s much harder for a creative person and a designer to work in that way. I do think that people who are on the development side of things do prefer a mobile first approach, because it makes things a lot easier, not in a bad way, not in a dumb way easier, but it makes things a lot easier to plan for and to accommodate for when you start with mobile first, so I can see both arguments, but I think being a design-heavy agency and one that really puts a lot of emphasis on that creative process, I want our team to have room to explore and right now, that room exists more fully in a desktop environment; that doesn’t mean that we don’t then challenge ourselves when we get to the laptop or the mobile experience, how can we make this really amazing and powerful and effective as well?
Gary:
And I’m glad you also brought up that distinction because when I teach an introduction to interaction design, I’m teaching HTML and CSS so, from the design perspective, that single column of mobile like we discussed, it just doesn’t make sense that to going from mobile first to the desktop visually, but coding-wise it is so much easier to start from mobile first single column and then expand on it and progressively enhance or however you want to label it, to get to a desktop experience or a large format experience, so it’s just the two are opposite and it’s really hard as an educator trying to navigate that.
Tracey:
Yeah; I think it boils down to, if you’ve got something really amazing that you’ve designed and planned for, for a desktop experience, you have to really consider the changes you’re going to make to those little moments of amazing-ness as you start to compress it down for those smaller break-points, whereas if you have something amazing and awesome on your smaller break-point, let’s say your mobile view, it’s a lot…you can be less considerate, I think, as you make changes to how it’s going to scan and scale and change to fill that desktop view. I might get some push-back on this from people who are real advocates of that mobile first but at least I’m not saying everyone should do it this way, but this is the way that works best for us and as long as the team is not making the same mistake, going our way and ignoring the time dedicated to thinking about that mobile experience and that tablet experience, then I’m OK with them having that bigger canvas to start. Probably takes us more time but I think the output’s better.
Gary:
Well, I think the push-back is going to come from, and this is a gross generalization, but front-end developers and I think mobile first from the front-end developer perspective makes more sense because I can do both and I think it makes more sense on that end, but on the visual side, it just doesn’t…and this kind of leads up into a follow-up question is, on the visual side, things still need to be fleshed out on what these new processes are and how do we approach it? Is there a better way to approach it? And one of the things that I then follow up to, the process of how Fastspot does it, and I’ll give you an example what I’m showing students in the classroom this time is I’m having them start off with doing style tiles to get the visual look, mood, feel at the same time as they’re doing wireframes that are just really design agnostic, they’re just where does this content go and then we’re going to switch to doing element collages, so they’re never actually designing something in context; they’re just doing it to a lesser level and then they can start maybe plugging those into a wireframing thing, like Zurb or Bootstrap or whatever. So, how do you go about that process at Fastspot?
Tracey:
Well, this is a hotly discussed topic. There are…we’ve played around with a lot of different ways to get a client to start thinking about the design before we’re actually designing so that we can really get on the same page and the more decisions you can make collectively before you actually show them design, the more likely you are to be closer to what everybody is happy with, so I can see the attraction for doing things like style tiles or mood boards and we have certainly tried those in the past and we have not seen a lot of benefit and I attribute that to one major cause which is that when you finally show the client design that actually has their content in it and represents this thing that we’re all working towards, their opinions are going to change, so as much as they might have agreed that this font looks lovely or this color combo is a good color combo or this kind of stylistic approach to photography is good, they inevitably change their minds when they see design that is more fully realized and we really are an agency also I think what’s unique about our approach is that we always try and show multiple designs to a client so there’s a lot of places where they’ll go through a lot of that work, but that allows them to just show one design and it’s like, OK, here’s what we’ve arrived at and now we’re going to tweak this, but this is it.

We bypass some of those approaches; we do wireframing and think a lot about the content strategy and the organization and the user-flows, but once we get into design, we find that the conversations around looking at actual realized design includes the client’s content and has started to integrate some of the content strategy that we’ve developed, it yields a much more productive conversation when we start talking about what they’re responding to, what they have questions about; at this point we’re talking about this is here because this is the most important target audience and this is what the persona work told us and this is what the outcome needs to be, so that’s why we’re doing this and it has less to do, honestly, with the look and feel and has a lot to do with the strategy, but the conversations we have around those decisions, and we also, aside to all of this, we always have different designers doing these things so they’re always very, very different approaches coming off of the same creative brief, so we have the same primary objectives that the client’s agreed to, we have keywords around look and feel, voice and tone, and so all of these things we’ve spent a lot of time focusing on and agreeing upon and adjusting with the client, but then when we start looking at those designs, really good conversation happens around a much more real scenario than what a style tile or a mood board can yield for us, so that’s really our approach and where we’ve been pushing our process towards more recently.

Gary:
Yeah, that makes sense. That’s going to be a jarring step, when you go from something that’s been just out of context to all of a sudden put into their context and so I could see that could make a big, like, wait a minute, I didn’t think it was going to look like this when we got to this, even though they agreed to it.
Tracey:
One of the biggest things and again, that I think everybody forgets about, is that you’ve got people looking at design but they’re looking at things that are going to impact their day to day life. If you show someone a big area of complicated content and rich media and that’s on their plate to manage and the content strategy says, this is super-important and we need this to change once a week, that person’s not thinking about what it looks like; they’re thinking about how much time it’s going to take them away from other things that are already on their plate so you kind of forget you’re showing people things that are going to ruin their day or make their day better, that are going to give them a raise and a promotion or get them kicked out because they can’t sustain it, so that’s a real important factor that I think more web teams need to be thinking about.
Gary:
Now, you mentioned web teams and you’ve mentioned content strategists, you’ve mentioned developers, you’ve mentioned designers. I’m asking this because in the classroom, students work in isolation, perpetuating that stereotype of a solo rock-star designer. Because of the complexities of digital design, design has become a team sport again, so I’d like to know the specifics of what it’s like to work at a digital agency as an interactive designer; things like who’s sitting on what meetings, who does the research, the testing and all that.
Tracey:
Sure; it’s a great question. If anyone thinks they’re going to just roll into a digital agency and become a solo rock-star, I think they’re in for a rude awakening because of exactly what you just described; it’s a complicated eco-system now and every team can benefit so much from what the other teams are doing. So, for example, when we have certain design reviews at Fastspot, it’s including the UX team and the development team, so the development team is looking at things to make sure we don’t put anything in front of the client that they’re going to fall in love with that’s completely impossible or that it’s going to suck all of the budget out of the development time and leave nothing left, so we’re trying to be cognizant of those things early on. The UX team is involved in design reviews because they’ve gained tremendous knowledge from going through a lot of the early research, so they’ve been interviewing different groups, they’ve created personas, they’ve usually created the information architecture and wireframes at that point, so they know the content better than anyone else and they also know the audiences better than anyone else, so it’s one thing to say, here’s this document that this other team created: review it, but why do that when we’re all in the same space or we can dial a few people in on Skype for a virtual meeting, so I’m a huge, huge believer in sitting down and communicating about these things in real time and it’s not always the most comfortable meetings to have, because this industry tends to attract a lot of introverts; we’re all attracted to the computer for a reason and I think one of those reasons oftentimes is the promise of solitary confinement and productivity, and meetings can be disruptive and annoying and everyone hates them but there’s no substitution for just good old communication and if I’m in a meeting, I’m going to do my best to stir it up and say, are you happy with what is happening here? Does this meet the needs that your team established and hey, are you meeting the goals that you guys set out for yourselves and just really pushing each other to never get complacent and to always look for areas to do a better job, make something more user-friendly, make something more compelling. I don’t think that can happen in a vacuum so I think that we push each other to be better: I don’t see people make great leaps of progress by themselves.
Gary:
Yeah…no, designing in a vacuum is the worst way to design. So, in the classroom, that becomes problematic because you’ve got a class full of designers.
Tracey:
Right!
Gary:
So, do you have any suggestions of strategies maybe to help designers break out of that? I myself just try to play devil’s advocate; I try to say hey, this is not going to be performant and that image is just too big and you’re using too many fonts because it’s not going to work on a 3G, but do you have any suggestions on how to do that or any things we can do?
Tracey:
Well, the only one I would suggest really for designers is to always be thinking beyond describing the real estate of their design. I think Mike Monteiro refers to it, giving the real estate walk-through. I think designers need to know how to sell their design and defend their design and argue on behalf of their design and the only way to do that is to have really strategic reasons for why everything is there that meet the needs of the assignment or the project or the client, wherever you are in that process, so if you are in a classroom and you’ve been given an assignment, well then, defend the heck out of why that design meets all the needs of the assignment and some extra stuff here, wow, isn’t that amazing? And now nobody is going to pick it apart. If you just kind of sit there and dial it in with your design, you’re just inviting people to pick it apart. Why not pick it apart at that point? So I think that’s a huge, huge thing that designers need to get better at and be thinking about and it will make them much more successful in their careers and it will make their work much more successful.
Gary:
One thing that just recently popped into my head: I think I was showing my students a video with Samantha Warren when she was doing a presentation on style tiles and she mentioned something about asking…she was asking questions about, I would say this is more in regards to brand, but she was asking about, if your company was a car, what kind of car would it be? And it got me thinking that that’s what I think’s missing in the classroom is the students don’t have a chance to kind of play the psychologist and really interview whoever their client is because the client is the teacher, so it’s not as dynamic as it can be and so I’m wondering if there’s a way for students to get a little bit more…maybe educators to do a better job of making students aware that there’s questions they have to ask to fully understand what they’re approaching. Does that question make sense?
Tracey:
It does. It’s a good sort of puzzle to think about because as a student, you want your students to learn and you certainly don’t expect your students to be acting like experts and consultants, but then as soon as a student gets out into the real world, they’re being asked very quickly to obtain that confidence to play the role much more of a consultant than of a doer, of a learner, and it’s a tough thing to balance and I think very quickly you see young people that after they’ve been doing this for a couple of years, they’re put into positions where they’re consulting a big deal client and I think that’s very intimidating for a lot of them. I think the best way to get there is to realize that you are there to understand and unearth things and try and come up with solutions to things; you’re not there to ask the client what they want. That’s one of the biggest mistakes you can make: the client doesn’t know what they want, that’s why they’re hiring you and more and more, so these days we’re not just helping the client solve a website problem, we’re helping them solve an institutional problem or a marketing problem or a brand problem and so if you ask the right questions, what you end up showing them back to my point earlier is, what you end up showing them can really transform them in much more than a new website kind of transformation, but you can transform them in how they think about themselves and how they talk about themselves and how they organize themselves internally, which means their business is going to change, whether it’s a higher end website or somebody selling something, selling a new product online, and asking questions is fascinating; if you don’t’ want to know more and you don’t want to dive into…if you just want to say, well I’m just going to sit back and make you something beautiful and amazing because I’m the designer and I don’t need to know all about your problems and your challenges and your hopes and dreams, well then you’re missing, I think, ninety per cent of your job.
Gary:
Yeah, and I think we do a horrible, in education, I think we do a horrible job of that little facet of it, just because of the nature, we’re handing them the assignment, so we’ve already kind of made those decisions when those decisions in actual reality are organic.
Tracey:
So maybe you guys need to let them decide what the assignment is based on a person, maybe the teacher is the stand-in for the client and they need to be interviewed by each student or team and then that person or team decides on what the assignment is.
Gary:
Yeah, and actually I’m glad you said that, because that is exactly what was just racing through my mind right now is like, oh, you know what? They could just interview me. It’s better than nothing at certain stages!
Tracey:
And you can lie to them and make it interesting.
Gary:
Yeah, that’ll be fun! All right, so we’re getting close on time. I have one more question that I’d like to ask you and I ask this question a lot and I never seem to get a definitive answer, but maybe there isn’t one, but I’ll ask it again anyway. What type of work in a student’s portfolio gives you the best indication that they will be successful as interactive designers at Fastspot?
Tracey:
I like to see a body of work, not just one piece, but several pieces in that portfolio that show that someone is really interested in problem-solving. We hired a designer once who had never done any web work, which is rare for us, but her print-work was meticulously, obsessively organized and structured in a way that you could tell she was just obsessed with solving this problem in this very organizational way and we just thought, this is going to be a natural transition for her. So what I like to see again is, somebody who’s not trying to just come up with a bell and a whistle or decorate over the top of a challenge but who has really dug into and said, so this was my solution and this is why I decided to do it this way. That is what I want to see in a portfolio.
Gary:
So as a quick follow-up, what don’t you want to see? Is there something you’re tired of seeing?
Tracey:
Yeah. I’m tired of seeing, unfortunately I’m tired of seeing…it’s hard to see the assignment work, even though that’s all a student has because you see a lot of it that’s the same, so I would say to students, when you get those assignments, do your best to come up with something that you know is going to look different; hopefully the problem-solving process can get you there and allow you to come up with a different kind of approach. But I like to see…I don’t like to see that students have just relied on their coursework to get their portfolio together. There’s no way that if you just are relying on what you’re learning in class that you’re going to be well prepared or competitive to go out into the job market so I don’t like to see someone who hasn’t pursued internships, who hasn’t taken on freelance jobs over the course of the summer; there are tons of people who need web work done who are happy to pay you pretty decent money for students and go out and do that work or volunteer your time; I want to see people who’ve experienced the real world a little bit. I’d be worried that a student who’d done nothing but their coursework for their portfolio would have a hard time adjusting to the challenges of client-based work.
Gary:
Thank you for saying that! I’m going to have to play that for my students now. So, Tracey, before I let you go, is there anything that you’re working on that you would like to share or something that you want to promote, or maybe a final piece of advice for design educators that we didn’t cover?
Tracey:
I think we covered a lot of the things that are definitely on my mind right now, but I’m really interested in what happens with these websites that we’re busy making, or even apps; what happens with them once we’re done with them because I think there’s such a tendency to wipe your hands of it and move onto the next thing, whereas you’ve created something that really needs to move on and do a lot of work. I think in our industry we’ve seen a few cycles now where these organizations spend a lot of money and time on these big, elaborate website projects or apps, only to have to turn around and throw them away and start over from scratch and I think that that is a problem that no one’s really come up with a good solution for: I think it has to do with the way the relationships are crafted between the agency and the client but also in the way that the agency and the client think about what they’re building together and how it needs to live in the world. So that’s something that I’m really interested in personally and for the future of my company. But for students, I think it’s a fascinating environment to be in, the internet is still quite young when you think about it; we may not even be building websites in five or ten years: there might be something completely different, so I think it’s just always important to look at what’s coming down the horizon and how people will change their lives to let this technology play a bigger role, or play a different role and so what we’re doing today, you really do need to be keeping your eye on the horizon for how it’s going to shape and morph into the future.
Gary:
Well, you know, just one observation with what happens to a website after you hand it off to a client. I have struggled with that for eternity and that’s one of the things that I don’t like about web is that it doesn’t end and I think that’s a hold-over from our print mentality is that when you hand it over, once the files go to the printer, it is done: there is nothing really left to do with that artifact other than maybe metrics to see how successful it was, but it’s not a living, breathing thing that can expand and go through this agile process, maybe evolve, and that I think that’s something that educators can do a lot more to make students realize that really, that’s not the final version that you just produced; that’s Version 1. That’s 1.0.
Tracey:
Right, if you’re like an Amazon or a company like that, you’re going to have millions of versions so it’s fascinating to hear about how they make these incrementally minute changes on their website: changing the color of a blue to a slightly darker blue on a link and then testing it with a certain segment for ten seconds and then turning it back and evaluating all of that data, so it is really interesting, we have all of this data, so I don’t think that the industry still is leveraging it unless you’re one of these giant businesses that can put a lot of money and time into it. So I think it’s still kind of an untapped area of focus.
Gary:
Yeah, I agree. Thanks, so that’s all we have time for today on Episode 19 of DesignEDU Today. I want to thank today’s guest, Tracey Halvorsen, for being so generous with her time. I want to thank the audience for listening and I want to thank the DesignEDU Today hosting sponsor, Digital Ocean, and CDN sponsor Fastly , for making the hosting and distribution of these podcasts possible. Finally, I want to thank the AIGA and the AIGA Design Educators’ Community for their generous support of my research that led to this podcast series.

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