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Design/UX

The Secret Ingredient of a Great Designer (Part 1 of 4)

Empathy. This word was woven like a long, continuous thread throughout my time at An Event Apart, Washington DC Edition.

When people ask what I do, it can be a struggle to put into words. I use terms like “web designer” or “digital designer” or “UI/UX designer.” To most people, that doesn’t mean much. I think people envision me sitting behind a computer tweaking color palettes and making pretty logos. And of course, that is part of it. But there’s another part, too.

I make digital products for other human beings. How do the decisions I’m making about digital experiences affect them? How do they affect my clients? My co-workers? Can I look back at my work and be proud that the decisions I made were humble, respectful and kind? Was I able to positively impact someone else’s life?

That’s what AEADC was all about this year. In the following 4 part series, I'll talk about how empathy transforms a good designer into a great one.

A Great Designer Has Empathy For Their Clients And Users


First up was Jeffrey Zeldman, co-founder of An Event Apart. His talk was about the popularity of the “engagement” metric. It is by far the metric that stakeholders request most often. But is it always the best way to measure a site’s success?

Is someone spending a lot of time on your site because they are engaged or because they are frustrated? Sometimes, it’s tough to tell. So we’re giving our clients the metric they ask for, but is it useful? Is it really as valuable as it seems?

Instead, Jeffrey challenged us to experiment with a new metric: Content Performance Quotient (CPQ). From a customer’s perspective, CPQ is the time it takes for you to help solve their problem. From the client’s perspective, it is the time it takes a customer to find, receive, and absorb your most important content. It’s the speed of usefulness.

Example Time!


In the early days of television advertisements, commercials were long and wordy, lasting approximately one minute. They were also very literal, so whatever the person was doing on screen, the off-screen narrator would describe in great detail.

Marlboro was originally introduced as a woman’s filtered cigarette. Men typically smoked unfiltered. However, in the early 50s, information began to surface about the dangers of smoking unfiltered cigarettes.

Marlboro wanted to start selling their cigarettes to men, but because of their traditional advertising techniques, it wasn’t catching on. Leo Burnett was hired to reposition the brand in 1954. Instead of creating a men’s ad that mirrored the women’s (with lengthy scientific explanations of the filter, and warnings of the harmfulness of smoking), he did something radical. The resulting commercial featured a cowboy, scenic views, and the words “Come to where the flavor is. Come to Marlboro Country”. He had whittled the advertisement down to its essence: the aspiration and the product.

It was wildly successful, resulting in a 300% increase in sales in two years.


Marlboro Man Advertisement

Modern Day Application


We can apply this same concept to digital designs today. Our sites overflow with "stuff." We spend countless hours and thousands of dollars creating web content that people are simply ignoring.


“Garbage in a delightfully responsive grid is still garbage” - Jeffrey Zeldman


So, how did we get here? And how do we stop?

Slash your architecture. Whittle down your content. If it’s not intentional, it’s not helping you meet your client’s goals. Get rid of it!

This is easier to do when we are included in the conversation. However, many times we are just handed the copy that has already been written. Or the client gives us a list of everything they want to see on their homepage. We’ve all been in meetings where someone says “Well, you put her link up there. What about mine?”


“Great UX professionals are like whistleblowers. They are the voice of the customer. And they often suffer the consequences because most organizations do not want the customer to have a genuine voice” - Gerry McGovern


Yep. We have a tough job of being an advocate, as well as a designer. We have to dig deep and consider what is best for the company as well as the user. It’s harder for us, but it’s better for our users and the client’s bottom line. Speak up, but speak tactfully and humbly.

Create purpose-driven content (that respects the user's time), and use the content performance quotient , not engagement, as the most meaningful measurement of success.


Further Reading:

Beyond Engagement: the Content Performance Quotient by Jeffrey Zeldman
Marlboro Man
@designcpq on Twitter
The King vs Pawn Game of UI Design by Eric Kennedy
No More FAQs by Lisa Wright


That's all for now! Parts 2, 3 and 4 of this series will be posted soon, where I'll talk about empathy as it relates to tech humanism, dealing with your co-workers, and web accessibility. In the meantime, I'd love to hear your thoughts, so drop a note or comment below!

Erin Fike
Graphic Designer
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