For this week’s Series, we’d like to share a Practitioner Q&A with a fellow UX-er who now leads the user experience charge for Digital Health at Walgreens—Adam Falat. Adam’s had a long, illustrious career that’s continuing to go strong, and he has some helpful acumen to share from optimizing your workflow, to the importance of getting one-on-one customer face-time for product testing, as well what it’s like to be a designer at Playboy. Yeah, he’s pretty cool. We had a blast interviewing him and we know you’ll enjoy his insights. So, go ahead and get your read on. He uses the word “wagile,” so if that doesn’t entice you, and the fact that he worked at Playboy, well, I don’t know what will…

And don’t forget: We are always eager to hear what you think about the Practitioner Series, and if you have suggestions for more experts to interview, we’d love to hear from you!

1. Thank you so much for taking the time to interview with us! I’d like to start the interview with our audience learning a little more about you and your history 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?

The first was the somewhat disorienting realization that came after graduating from UIUC in 2001 with a degree in Computer Science:  I did not want to write code for a living. I knew there were plenty of smart people who were driven to work at programming logic on a much deeper level than I wanted to, and I wondered if I had made a big mistake with my education. I was still very interested in solving important human problems through technology, but on a more abstract level from code, and I also wanted to find a way to use my interest in the arts. So, I ended up taking a year off after earning my degree to go find myself in Austin, Tex. and became engrossed in the local design community there. That was where I started doing the type of work that we would eventually come to call “experience design,” and I’ve never looked back.

My second realization came while witnessing first-hand the power of user research. I had just been hired at Walgreens and our team was going into the homes of patients with certain chronic illnesses, such as oncology, and learning about their experiences and showing prototypes for new digital concepts. We were in the home of an elderly lung cancer patient, and they thought our prototype was the most ridiculous concept they had ever seen. What sounded great in our design studio just did not make sense for their real-world context. It was a real eye-opener seeing that patient’s home and how they were managing their therapy and using technology.

That level of real-time, visceral user feedback just cannot be matched from analytics or surveys. User research is no longer an option anymore. Smart businesses leverage user-centered design to stay grounded in the real-world problems and needs of their customers. Otherwise, it’s too easy to design for yourself, which is not only self-gratuitous, but terribly risky.

Lastly, was the realization that experience design often means so much more than the pixels on a screen. Many of today’s customer experiences blend both digital and analog elements and require a systems thinking approach. The most pressing problems in our world today are not going to be solved by solo designers working on a masterpiece in a vacuum. We require multidisciplinary approaches to create thoughtful experiences throughout a person’s life journey. Much of the work we’re doing at Walgreens involves a careful orchestration of multiple systems and partners to ensure we are creating the right conditions to deliver the best customer experiences possible—whether in the privacy of your home, in our stores, or somewhere in between.

2. Currently you lead UX Practice for Digital Health at Walgreens. Could you tell us a bit about the workflow there? Are you agile or lean? Or do you have a more enterprise-focused practice?

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Our practice consists of experience designers, visual designers, copywriters and user researchers who are embedded on Agile teams. The teams generally stay focused within certain product areas of the business, which we’ve found allows team members to develop deep expertise in those areas to better address customer needs and opportunities over time. We converted from Waterfall to Agile three years ago, and underwent some growing pains, but have since figured out how to incorporate a holistic user-centered design process within the Agile cadence.

Design process wasn’t really addressed in the original Agile Manifesto, so organizations have largely had to find their own way. I wouldn’t call our current process pure Agile; it’s more like “Wagile,” but it works well for us. Going Agile caused many former disciplinary silos to break down within our organization and the resulting collaborations have caused a culture of innovation to really take hold.

In 2014, Walgreens.com underwent a full facelift, led by Falat, whereupon they utilized an adaptive design strategy to facilitate their workflow.

Last year, we underwent another major shift in our workflow when we started producing everything using an adaptive design. At the time, not everyone was convinced adaptive was going to be a sound long-term strategy, but it was becoming increasingly apparent that mobile would soon be the dominant channel and where we needed focused investment in the experience. We decided to make a substantial investment to basically re-build the entire Walgreens.com website from scratch, and redefine our workflows and design systems over six months. It was a little like rebuilding the engine of an airplane mid-flight, but well worth the investment because we are now able to deliver a consistent experience—no matter what type of device someone is using.

Lastly, operating as a UX practice allows us to come together regularly and support each other’s development as experience designers. It helps provide some much-needed unity for how we engage with the enterprise. Recently, our UX practice has been evolving to go even deeper into the enterprise to address many of the fundamentals. For example, we are now helping solve pharmacy challenges that are more systems-level and operational in nature. Why? Because those systems ultimately exist to serve the customer. As a UX practice, we are in the best position to act as the voice of the customer, and to validate our business offerings with them.

3. Wow, you used to work for Playboy!? Can you tell us a couple funny or interesting stories about your experience(s) as a UX practitioner there? Was it a good space to be creative or did it ever get distracting (insert a little wink-and-nod;)?

I worked with Christie Hefner (Hugh Hefner’s daughter) for many years when the Playboy offices were still located in Chicago. At the time the terms “UX” and “Agile” were barely registering in the common vernacular and I credit Playboy for having the foresight to really embrace both of these ideas early on. As a young UX practitioner, it was a great environment to dive into these emerging areas and learn how teams built successful digital products within an enterprise setting.  While the content was what some may consider risqué, our approach to product development was not very different from other shops. Playboy’s main digital product was a subscription website called the Cyber Club, which featured in-depth pictorials and editorial content. However, with the democratization of web publishing, this proved to not be a business model with a sustainable competitive advantage. They eventually shuttered their Chicago offices and consolidated operations out West.

The Playboy work environment was fun and collaborative, but could seem a bit outlandish at times. For example, the office art was all original and unique to Playboy. I mean full-reveal statues, paintings, collages and the like. It took a few months to stop being distracted by it. There was this one guy, whose only job was to give tours of the office art to important people. I could never decide whether that was a good gig or not. Also, Playboy didn’t throw your typical office holiday party. Those events happened on an entirely different level from other organizations. Hef, if you’re reading, I’m still waiting for my invitation to the Playboy Mansion.

4. You currently work to make sure that the user experience for Walgreen’s pharmacy customers is friction-free. How has working in the health industry versus the entertainment changed your outlook on UX and has it also altered your personal design philosophy?

My perspective on UX has really expanded from working in the consumer healthcare industry, and I have much more appreciation for the importance design can play in people’s lives. In healthcare, you work with a different sense of purpose and urgency because there is so much more at stake. Often many people’s lives are hanging in the balance and design decisions can impact that. It’s very easy to get behind the mission.

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However, healthcare is riddled with wicked systems problems. Often these problems lack clear definitions and solutions, and the true effects of changes are unknown and unknowable. These problems require combined efforts of multiple players working in unison, and just getting alignment on the vision, let alone the strategy is a big hurdle. I believe a designerly approach provides one of our best chances for solving the growing healthcare challenges we face. Everyone wants to throw technology at these problems, but the technology needs to be integrated within the system, and considerate of people’s real-world contexts and behaviors.

For example, knowing you walked 10,000 steps a day from a fitness tracker is all well and good—now what? What does that mean for that person in their unique life circumstance? Do they need to modify their behaviors? Can their providers access and use this information? We’re still very early in figuring out how to bring the pieces together to affect the needed changes at a population level, but we’re on our way.

5. You’ve obviously had a lot of varied experiences as a UX designer, could you tell us about some emerging trends that you’ve seen rise that have become game changers for us?

I think as a design community we are quickly waking up to the power of leveraging neuroscience principles to facilitate positive behavior change and transformation in people’s lives. For example, many people living with chronic disease conditions, such as diabetes and obesity, or who are smokers know what they should do to manage their health, but for one reason or another do not do it. In the case of prescriptions, adherence to medications remains a huge problem, driving up costs and waste. Using new technologies, such as wearable devices, smartphones, and soon smart environments like homes and cars, we can leverage behavior change techniques to design for meaningful transformation in peoples’ lives.

I also believe the human-computer interface as we’ve typically thought of it for the last fifty years is now undergoing rapid change. It’s true that mobile and touch-based interactions have been an exciting place to work as designers recently, but ultimately I think these will give way to more natural interfaces, such as gestural and conversational UI. You can see some of this already happening now with virtual assistants in your smartphone, home and car. As virtual reality gains more traction I believe the secret to getting the interaction design right will be by leveraging natural UIs, not joysticks. New advancements in artificial intelligence will also help make these types of interactions more feasible.

6. And to juxtapose that last question, have you also seen trends fall by the wayside that you either are grateful for, or think will make a comeback?

Can we stop having the debate about skeuomorphism versus flat design? The world is not so black and white and neither are our design choices. Both can be used effectively, or carried too far.

Also, I think the hype around “gamification” is finally dwindling down somewhat. Yes, game principles can help drive behavior change, but not every digital product needs to feel like a contest with leaderboards and badges. Designers and product managers need to understand the mechanics behind these tools and use them sparingly, and only when appropriate.

7. What are your thoughts on Experience Design (XD)? Do you think this new facet of design will change the face of UX?

I believe we are currently living in what Joe Pine and James Gilmore described as the “Experience Economy” back in 1998. They talked about the progression of economic value that businesses have moved through from producing goods, then services and more recently, experiences. As you move up the ladder of value, each of those categories eventually becomes commoditized. In order to seek competitive differentiation, businesses must invest in mass customization at each of these levels. Think about how you can now order a custom Tesla or Mini Cooper, designed to your own specifications. Or soon, how you will be able to 3-D print a unique, one-of-a-kind version of most products. Similarly, people today are now paying to have unique life experiences tailored just for them. Think Uber and AirbnB. Extrapolating this further out, after the experience economy, will emerge the “transformation” economy. People will pay businesses to help them transform themselves in new meaningful ways. I see our role as designers as to continue providing the right interface between businesses and their customers at each of these economic levels. Today we design experiences, tomorrow we will design transformations.

8. Lastly: The Customer (User) is Always Right: true or false, and why?

Absolute statements are rarely true. That being said, I’m a big believer in Dale Carnegie’s principle of never telling someone, “You’re wrong.” Whether in business or any other situation. If your business is telling customers they are wrong, you will likely not be in business for long.

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