Your Practitioner Series is back this week with a new and exciting voice from the world of UX. Meet Andy Vitale, a lead interaction designer for one of the most innovative creators of U.S. products since 1902—3M (Fun fact: 3M is short for its prior name, the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company.) As a driver of UX excellence in 3M’s Health Care Business Group, as well as a former agency founder, Andy has a winning perspective on design-thinking and provides tips on how to apply it to users, UX and multiple touchpoints.

In addition, Andy shares his views on Experience Design (XD)—a topic that’s near-and-dear to our hearts here at Digital Telepathy—and reminds us all that brands who not yet adopting XD are just behind the curve. We couldn’t agree more. We hope you’ll enjoy Andy’s perspective on UX, as it uncannily mirrors our own, and that you find value in his takeaways and learning experiences to improve that of your users, too.

Happy reading, and remember: if you have a suggestion for a Practitioner that you’d like us to interview, or you’d like to ask Andy a question, hit us up in the Comments Section. We’re listening!

Article Highlights:

1. Thank you so much for taking the time to interview with us, Andy. I understand you’re a Lead Interaction Designer at 3M, and you’ve also worked for Office Depot and Belk, but I’d like to start the interview with our audience learning a little more about you and your evolution as a designer. Could you give me your three biggest career milestones you’ve had, and tell us why they were significant to you and your growth as a UX practitioner?

To me, milestones aren’t measured by success stories or wins, but more of opportunities to learn, grow or make an impact. As designers—in the constantly evolving world of digital—learning is essential to keep pace with progress. With that said, there are certainly some powerful experiences in my professional career, thus far, that really stand out to me as true milestones.

Teaching, mentoring and giving back to the design community are very important to me. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to do this for several years as Graphic Design Department Chair at Keiser University in West Palm Beach, Fla. This experience taught me a great deal about different learning styles and motivations, helping me to grow as a mentor and coach. It’s inspiring to know you’re making an impact on people’s journeys in life… identifying dreams, developing tools to help them get there, and learning new things at every moment possible along the way.

Another milestone I would share is more entrepreneurial, one that highlights the importance of curiosity, passion and drive. In 2010, I co-founded The Pancake Movement, a digital boutique agency providing user experience, design, development and strategic services for a diverse range of corporate and startup clients. My role as a designer and business leader really helped me to learn the necessary survival skill of selling design.

When you are responsible for clients, partners, employees and just keeping the lights on, you see the big picture… learning and educating, inspiring and getting inspired, and finding the drive to keep it all moving and growing.

We delivered great work and, more importantly, my three partners and I have all grown as designers and individuals. I’m so proud of all of our accomplishments since then.

Lastly, my biggest milestone to date is my current role as Lead Interaction Designer for 3M’s Health Care Business Group. No matter what your career, it’s always a privilege when you’re in a position to do something meaningful, and when you have the opportunity to do so through a designer’s lens, the impact can be life changing. 3M is a company that rests on a 100+ year heritage of success through innovation. As designers working in the healthcare industry, we have the ability to make an impact on the world by improving quality of care through different channels. That’s the power of design—to recognize there is always a creative path to improve the current state, and do so through a context that’s meaningful.

2. Empathy is a hot-button UX term that’s now a defining factor for crafting successful UX. You mentioned on LinkedIn that you currently, “Lead projects that create immersive, emotional experiences by seamlessly integrating digital and physical worlds in the healthcare space.” If you were your younger self, how would you explain how to put this into practice and design for this? What are you tips for creating emotional experiences that you’ve used at 3M?

I would tell my younger self that involving users throughout the process is the most important piece of the puzzle. It’s more than just involving users though. Learning how to design with users, instead of for them, is not something that can be passed on through advice. It requires a lot of other skills such as, patience, understanding and empathy, to build a relationship that is mutually beneficial. Emotion has a larger impact on user loyalty than effectiveness or ease of use.

In order to create that emotional connection with users, you have to be authentic and transparent with them from the start.

At 3M Design, we involve our users as early as possible. While it is important to talk to them so that we can understand their pain points and desired outcomes, we gain more value from observing them interacting with our products. We observe with intent, asking the right questions to identify gaps between user and business goals. We also do journey mapping exercises, so we can empathize with our users by not only capturing the steps along their journey, but also understanding the emotions attached to each step across every touch point. These are people who have a personal connection to our products because they use them throughout their day. This allows us to craft a truly connected experience. Of course, we validate our solutions with them, early and often, to make sure we are solving the right problems.

3. Design has truly become one key indicator of brand success, and in turn, many businesses are actively seeking good design and finally appreciating UX, too. What are some brands that surprised you in 2015 with an effort to make stellar design a greater part of their ethos?

If you asked me this question a month ago, Netflix would be my first pick. From a design standpoint they have been able to grow as a brand and become integrated within the fabric of our culture. Unfortunately, their new Apple TV app seems to have lost a lot of the simplicity and ease of use that they have been known for. I expect them to rebound and for their experience to once again be on par with the quality of their original programming.

One brand that surprised me with their design effort has been Salesforce. For an enterprise company to showcase such clean design across multiple devices, it’s really saying something about their investment in design talent and strategy. This year alone saw the release of their own design language to allow the design community to create apps that maintain a similar look and feel with the rest of the Salesforce ecosystem. Their cloud-based solutions and mobile applications deliver data in a beautifully digestible way. They also created the first true enterprise application for the Apple Watch.

Another brand is Major League Baseball (MLB). With their ability to combine technology and media with world-class design, MLB has become relevant again. From the videos they post on social media to smartphone and tablet applications, design plays a large role in the success of the MLB brand. Their MLB TV application provides a best-in-class experience that has captured the attention of other content companies who license their technology. The brand is fun and exciting, and its design potential is limitless.

The MLB app takes its users needs into consideration, which is why the app is pretty darn reliable for discovering those annoying blackout games.

Lastly, I would cite 3M, where I work. Widely recognized more for its engineering and manufacturing innovations than design, 3M is initiating more focus and investment in the design arena, and it’s great to be part of this journey in my current role as a lead interaction designer. With an emphasis on design-thinking to push the boundaries of multiple physical and digital products, the design culture at 3M will continue to drive innovation to improve lives every day. A new Design Center is currently under construction and is scheduled to open next spring to cultivate greater idea exchange across 3M’s global design community.

4. Have there been any UX trends in 2015 that have emerged and surprised you, delighted you and/or disappointed you?

Over the past year or two, one of the biggest trends has been UX as a business strategy. As the industry evolves with more strategic muscle, we’ve seen companies purchase entire agencies and transition them into in-house teams. Capital One purchased Adaptive Path. Facebook purchased Teehan + Lax. Several large and diversified global corporations are hiring hundreds of UX design professionals. UX Design is no longer a boutique service as more organizations are seeing the value of taking a user-centered approach.

Another significant trend is the focus on the enterprise experience. There’s been a lot of great design coming out of enterprise solutions: Salesforce, IBM and Microsoft, just to name a few.

Although enterprise users have complex interactions and robust data, at the end of the day, there is only good or bad design—no matter who the user is.

We’ve come a long way in realizing that enterprise users deserve the same level of attention to quality of experience as consumer users receive. With substantial opportunity for growth in enterprise UX, this trend will only continue.

Not all of the trends in UX are positive. I’ve been disappointed by a pattern of practice initiated by several companies to cram as much functionality as possible into an interface without taking the impact of the user experience into consideration. Many tend to just add buttons as a patch when adding functionality to a product. Such short-term enhancements will undoubtedly compromise user interactions and experience over time, potentially causing companies to waste time, money and resources to restart development all over again, if not managed properly.

5. What are your thoughts on Experience Design (XD, Customer-Focused Design, etc)? 

Anyone who thinks that Experience Design, or any other name for user-centered design is the future, is already behind their competitors. Business, technology, marketing and design strategies are all taking user-centered approaches to drive innovation within organizations. This customer-focused design thinking is allowing companies to craft a true customer experience across multiple channels, products and touch points.

The overall experience is more than the instance users interact with a physical or digital product: it’s about the entire ecosystem, (this includes competitors and partners). The experience starts with how users discover products or services, including the point of purchase, and continuing on past product interaction or use.

Designers need to keep user’s desired outcomes and emotions throughout the whole experience front and center at all times.

Take the airline industry as an example, where customer demands or perceived ideas of solutions simply aren’t attainable (at least today) from the perspective of capability. Airlines have made great strides in simplifying the check-in process by enabling digital boarding passes; I love to use my Apple Watch for this. But why stop there? Why, as a customer, can’t the airlines send me an automatic message on my mobile device the moment my plane lands to let me know where to find my connecting flight? And can’t they make the planes go twice as fast so I can get to places quicker? I would like that, too. So, am I right for demanding that these improvements to my experience be made immediately? Or am I wrong because the business infrastructure, resources and technology aren’t there yet?

Fortunately, for those who haven’t gotten on board yet, it’s not too late. As their users begin to interact with their product or service across multiple devices, or touch points, it is important to tailor that overall experience to align with customer needs, and that opportunity is there every day.

6. The Customer Is Always Right: True or False—and why?

The answer to this isn’t so simple, particularly in the world of design where we have a lot of grey areas around feasibility, solutions, experience and outcomes. We always have to be aware that customers don’t know what they don’t know. They’re often not cognizant of technical or business limitations, or even just objectively understanding and creating the link between possibility and capability.

I don’t think it’s about customers being right: it’s about customers being valuable. When we listen, watch, engage and learn from them, we glean insights that can take us down far more creative and productive development paths than if we didn’t involve the customer at all. As users have more information at their fingertips across multiple mediums, companies are quickly seeing the value and impact of taking a customer-centered approach and understanding how needs and insights can transform and improve solutions, interaction and experience. This is why I always emphasize co-creation and the importance of bringing users into the end-to-end process. A transparent process of engaging users early-and-often will allow us to create successful products and together, and get it right.

We hope you enjoyed our interview with Andy. If you’re excited to learn more about how user research can have a positive impact on your business, check out our deep dive Behind the Design case study with our client, Bulletproof. Here we give you a behind the scenes look at how we applied user research to create a customer-centric solution for their new audience segment. Stay tuned for our 2016 Experience Mapping content that’ll hit our blog next year to provide the insights you crave to elevate your users’ experiences.