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The Data Doesn’t Lie

5 May

Data is funny.

We use it to tell us all sorts of things. We call it empirical. We talk about how the data doesn’t lie. We look at numbers, look at trends, and we draw conclusions – not just the data scientists in the crowd, but everybody. How much money did you make last year? How profitable is the latest Captain America movie? Who is the most successful batter of all time? The data will tell us.


But … will it?


Let’s look at a couple of baseball players and examine their batting averages. This is real data I’m using here, and the math is pretty easy. For the sake of conversation, let’s try to determine who was a better batter – Derek Jeter or David Justice. To make things simple let’s examine a data set of just two years, 1995 and 1996, and let’s talk about each player’s batting average – that’s the percentage of time, when a batter is at bat, he gets a hit.

Derek Jeter’s batting average for 1995 was .250 and for 1996 was .314

David Justice’s batting average for 1995 was .253 and for 1996 was .321

What does the data tell us? It’s pretty clear, right? If you’re gonna pick a better batter for 1995 and 1996, you’d choose David Justice. He was a more successful batter that Derek Jeter was. He hit the ball with more reliability. That’s not my opinion – The data says so!

Not so fast. Let’s combine the two years:

For the two-year period combined, Derek Jeter’s batting average was .310

For the same period, David Justice’s batting average was .270

Wait, what?

That’s not a typo, that’s Simpson’s Paradox in action. Edward Simpson first described his statistical finding this way: “Trends which appear in groups of data may disappear or reverse when the groups are combined.” Seem unbelievable, right? It’s not. It’s just math.

Let’s look at the raw data. I put the “winner” in bold in each data set.


1995:                           Hits                 At Bats            Average

Derek Jeter                 12                    48                    .250

David Justice              104                  411                  .253


1996:                           Hits                 At Bats            Average

Derek Jeter                 183                  582                  .314

David Justice              45                    140                  .321


Combined:                  Hits                 At Bats            Average

Derek Jeter                 195                  630                  .310

David Justice               149                  551                  .270


The data doesn’t lie. David Justice had a more successful percentage of at-bats in 1995 and a more successful percentage of at-bats in 1996 … and when you combine the two years, Derek Jeter is the better batter. Sorry, David; when you aggregate data, sometimes there’s just no justice.

I’m not saying data can’t be trusted – that’s not the point at all. Data can always be trusted. It’s empirical, remember. Data doesn’t lie. The paradox is that both cases are true. David Justice had a higher batting average than Derek Jeter in both 1995 and 1996. This is a fact. Derek Jeter’s 1995/1996 Combined batting average is higher. This is also true. It seems like these things can’t both be true, but they are.

And that’s the point.

The world isn’t binary. We think if A is true then B must be false, and that’s almost never the case. We think, if we’re right about something, then others must be wrong. We think if what the data tells us is true, then what the data doesn’t tell us is surely false.

All too often, we’re wrong.

Let’s talk about movies for a second. Which movie was more successful, The Avengers, or The Fast and Furious 7? Let me give you some data to help you figure this out:


Movie                          Worldwide Gross

The Avengers              $1,517,557,910

Furious 7                     $1,516,045,991


The answer is obvious. The Avengers was more successful, right? The data says so. The math is clear. The Avengers made $1.5 million more than Furious 7. Box office numbers don’t lie! But there’s more to the data than that. Dig a bit deeper and look at the movie’s cost:


Movie                          Budget

The Avengers              $220,000,000

Furious 7                     $85,000,000


So The Avengers cost $135 million more to make than Furious 7 did, and only made $1.5 million more than Furious 7 did. Doesn’t that mean Furious 7 was more successful?

I guess it depends on how you define successful. And that brings us closer to something you can take away and think about. If you define a movie’s success to be a measure of tickets sold (and dollars earned) at the box office, you are correct in asserting that The Avengers is more successful. If you define a movie’s success as the function of the movie’s box office receipts less the movie’s budget, you are correct in asserting that Furious 7 is more successful.

Despite your binary instincts, telling you only one or the other is true, the data confirms for us that both scenarios are true.

It’s all about how you look at it.

Consider this the next time you find yourself in a disagreement with someone about something. What if the fact that you’re right doesn’t mean the other person is also wrong? What if you’re facing Simpson’s Paradox? What if you’re both right?

It’s not always about who is right. Sometimes, everybody is.

Andrew J. Powell Principal- Application Development

Andrew J. Powell
Principal- Application Development

Andrew Powell serves the Application Development practice at OST , providing guidance, strategic support, and candy to more than fifty developers and consultants. Andrew has been a technology consultant for more than twenty years. In addition to consulting, Andrew is a frequent public speaker in technology circles, and loves to talk about the coming Robot Apocalypse and how application developers are positioned to defend the world against our future robot overlords. When not cowering in fear, Andrew makes his home in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


What role does empathy play in the OST culture?

27 Apr

And now, for a Lesson in the Greek… Empatheia!

Empathy. Say it a couple of times… heck, say it out loud twenty times in a row. Say it until it has no meaning for you anymore then back off, wait a minute and write it down on a piece of paper in front of you – then study it for a bit. Think on it. What does it mean to you?


Here is a word we hear all the time. But what does it really mean and why is it important? Why is it a valuable trait in our work and home lives? What does it truly mean to be “empathetic”? How can we increase our empathy and be thoughtful about employing it?


The etymology of the word empathy is from the Greek word “em” which in English translates to “in” and “pathos” which translates to “feeling”. Put it all together and the actual entire Greek word is “empatheia”.


So the ancient Greeks had a word which roughly translates to “in feeling” and which we use to describe an ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Or, in other words, to “put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.” Our usage of the word indicates that it is outside of ourselves and focused upon an external agency. I can “see it from his side”. I can “walk a mile in her shoes”. I can “feel your pain”. So, clearly the word and the idea has a strong place in our interpersonal relationships – as supported by the use in our popular vernacular. But is that the extent of it? Is that all there is to this? And how does it relate to our OST world?

Here are some thoughts I have around empathy in our world.

First off, from the perspective of our OST employees and teammates, empathy is the core foundation of our first belief, “honor our people and their families first”. We internalize the needs of individuals and their families and make them our own. We recognize when we need to put them first, ahead of ourselves and ahead of the needs of OST. We are constantly on the lookout for the opportunity to recognize a need and make sure it is met. We sacrifice our time and efforts to make sure that others get what they need, and we have expectations that others will reciprocate when we need. The reason we can do this is because we are actively “in feeling” with our OST family members and that allows us to care for them and their needs in a way which is not reflected in society as a whole – especially in the context of a corporation.

Empathy is a strong player in our second core foundation as well, “we will delight our clients”. How can we delight our clients if we are not “in feeling” with them? In other words, if we do not understand the true needs of our client how will we ever be successful in delighting them? There are those who believe that simply completing a task or project “on time and on budget” is the definition of delighting our client but I know it goes much deeper than that. To truly delight a client, it is not enough to just do what they ask, we need to understand what they really need and help them to get there! We need to be “in feeling” with them and taking our knowledge and skills and leveraging that understanding to build solutions that give them what they absolutely require, which is often quite different from what they have asked.

Look at our next guiding creed, “we serve with humility”. There are many definitions of service, but in this case  we mean that we provide “acts of helpful activity or aid”. Disregarding the obviously redundant nature of that definition (thanks for that!) it is clear to see that without an understanding of the need, without being “in feeling” with the one we are serving it will be very difficult to provide service which is of value. And how about that last little bit… “with humility”. What does that mean if not serving the individual in such a way that they feel (“in feeling!”) that the servitude is motivated by caring and compassion – not from a self-centered or selfish desire, but truly for the benefit of the one being served. As one being served you cannot feel that servitude is of pure motivation (which I believe is required in order to really feel good about it) unless it is delivered with humility.

Back to our usage of empathy as supported by our popular vernacular. Focused on others and aligned to interpersonal relationships, but is that the full extent? What about being “in feeling” with ourselves? What about giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt from time to time? What about recognizing the flawed humanity we all are and giving ourselves a break occasionally? We all need to remain aware of the fact that we need to serve ourselves too, and in order to do so we need to understand our own feelings and motivations. This blog post is not a suitable forum for a full exploration of this topic, but I know that some amongst us work on ourselves through therapy and coaching, while others meditate and journal. (Some of us stand thigh deep in freezing rivers in rubber pants waiving a stick too… there are many ways to explore yourself!) I’m sure though that many of us are not working on this enough, and that is something we should all spend more time on, time thinking about and taking thoughtful action to be more empathetic to others and ourselves!

We say it all the time, and we live it as well; we are a family at OST. We care for one another, we serve one another and we honor one another. At work and outside of work. And you know what else? We bicker and we argue and we dishonor one another as well, just like a real family! And just like at OST, the tenant of empathy is important at home with our own friends and families. Some of us are better at it than others… and some of us need to work on it a bit – both at work and at home. Safe to say that none of us are as good at it as we could be though!

As I close these thoughts today, the last thing I am thinking about is the role of empathy in design and design thinking. If you examine the approach and focus of human centered design, it is all about empathy. Empathy in understanding the user’s feeling towards a product or a service. Being “in feeling” with the user such that decisions and directions become more clear, and results are demonstrably better. If I had to point out one thing that I have found personally valuable from our close partnership with Visualhero as we have worked to merge our teams, it is the constant examples of empathy as it relates to our clients, each other and ourselves. Probably because of the design ethos which values empathy so greatly, the team at Visualhero practically oozes empathy in every single thing they do or say.

So… I am currently “in feeling” with you, kind reader, and see clearly and understand without question that you have had enough… so I will thank you from the bottom of my heart for reading this far and bid you “Avtio” for now!


Director of Professional Services

Director of Professional Services

John Vancil is a twenty-eight year veteran of the Information Technology field, currently holding the position of Director of Professional Services for Open Systems Technologies (OST) in Grand Rapids Michigan. During his career, John has held numerous development, support, management and staff level positions with companies ranging from enterprise (Electronic Data Systems, Baan) to the SMB space (Nucraft Furniture, OST). Today John is responsible for a $29 million dollar services operation which encompasses Data Center Solutions, Application Development, Data Analytics, Design, ERP and Advisory Services, Security, and Managed Services. John shares his life with wife Amy, daughter Catherine and Lambeau the world’s most exuberant Golden Retriever. When he is not serving the OST team, John likes to golf, fly-fish, compose and perform music and hang out with the family.

The design strategy toolbox

21 Apr


Collaborative exercises to move a company forward

A strategic designer’s toolbox contains many different ways to successfully define problems, align teams, and identify opportunities.

These tools can include workshops, facilitation strategies, or human-centered or design thinking tactics. In the hands of a talented designer and an engaged audience, these tools can craft an invaluable understanding of a customer, create widespread alignment around an initiative and define an organization’s short- and long-term strategic plan—all in a creative, non-traditional meeting environment.

Many of these tools make up the engine that drives Visualhero’s Strategic Design practice. Depending on the organization’s goals or project focus, we may utilize one or more of the following workshops:

Defining the customer

User Understanding Workshops

As an experience design firm, everything we do is focused on meeting the needs of the people, so naturally we often begin a project with a user understanding workshop.

The two most common exercises in these workshops are personas and journey maps. Separately, they each uniquely shed light on the user’s perspective of your product, business or brand, and when viewed together, they create a full picture of who you’re designing for.

Personas – Representations of your customers

Personas have become very popular in businesses over the past few years–and for good reason. A persona prototyping workshop involves having key stakeholders from across a business gather to discuss specific customer pain points, technological sophistication, habits, trends and other characteristics relevant to the project.

Journey maps – Illustrate a customer’s experience with your brand, across all touchpoints.

Journey maps are important both for what they show, as well as what they do not show. Journey maps identify a customer’s full experience, from gaps and relationships to detailed touch points of a customer’s experience. If a journey map shows a lot of customers are behaving in a certain way, but your company is suited to support such activity, they can lead to further product development or feature enhancements.

Journey map workshops, sometimes known as experience mapping or blueprinting, are used to visually depict a customer’s experience across the course of their interactions with a company. We recently ran a series of workshops with a consumer product company to understand their customer touchpoints, then to map them out visually to create internal alignment. We analyzed the current state of their customer experience, from initial research to final research and beyond. From there, we identified gaps in their current customer experience and brainstormed opportunities to fill them. Finally, we synthesized all the workshop findings and potential opportunities into a PDF deliverable.

User Research – Validate personas and journey maps with external data.

Go out and validate the boardroom assumptions you made with the personas and journey maps with real customers who match the profiles. Qualitative research methods such as customer interviews and observations will prove that you’re right, prove that you’re wrong or prove that you nailed a few things, but missed some others.

Throughout the design process and beyond, continually reference these documents to ensure you’re on the right track and designing with your user’s needs in mind.

Who are you, anyway?

Brand Definition Workshop

Not only is strategic design useful in understanding who you’re designing for, but it’s also valuable in defining who you are as a brand, organization or product. For these types of challenges, brand definition workshops come in handy, and can take many forms.

Brand Attribute Exercises – An interactive discussion used to assign descriptors to an organization or product.

This exercise centers around “who is [brand, company or product]?” and “who is [brand, company or product] not?” This discussion creates a shared consensus around brand values that influence branding and logo design, written copy tone, or future product development. For example, a brand that answers “who are we?” with “friendly, warm, engaging and inclusive” would steer clear of cold colors, aggressive looking logos and a voice that’s sarcastic. Understanding who you are, and what makes you who you are, will allow decision making to be a much more natural process.

Brand Attribute Radar – A tool to prioritizes key brand attributes.

Using a large circular, dartboard-looking graphic, participant’s place each of the brand attributes on the radar, from the center out depending on its relevancy to the brand. Using the “friendly, warm, engaging and inclusive” example from above, something like “edgy” may fall very far away from the core attributes. The closer the attribute is the core, the more important it should be to the brand. If there’s disagreement, great! Let’s discuss.

Love & Breakup Letter Exercise – An opportunity to be honest with your brand.

In this exercise, participants write a letter to the brand detailing all the things it does to delight them, just as one would say to a loved one. In the second part, participants break up with the old brand, and talk about why they’re moving on. When viewed side-by-side, these letters highlight what’s working and what’s not, opening the door to a conversation about how to improve. In addition to being a fun, icebreaker-type exercise, it also gets participants to acknowledge that brands can cause true feelings, both good and bad.

Let’s get on the same page

Alignment Workshops

Imagine you’re in a kickoff meeting, but the project’s key stakeholders can’t agree on initial project objectives. Or maybe design and development are on different pages about feature priority. Or, our personal favorite, everyone in the room has a completely different definition of what success looks like for a specific initiative. If any of these scenarios sound familiar, you’re not alone–and the next time you encounter one of these scenarios, take a step back and consider running one of these alignment workshops or exercises.

Remember the future – get the group thinking about where they want the business to go.

Each participant is given a blank magazine cover (Tip: choose a magazine relevant to your industry) and given the following prompt: “It’s 2020 and your brand is being profiled on the cover of this magazine. Draw what has made you stand out so prominently in your industry.”

Participants will answer with what they feel sets the company apart from competitors, which can be valuable insight. This type of vision casting also gives insight into the type of company these employees admire, believe in and hope to work for one day. With the list of employee-sourced aspirations, you can then work backwards and together build a roadmap towards these goals.

Stakeholder Mapping – A visual way to understand your stakeholder ecosystem.

If complete and blissful alignment just isn’t an option because of the intricacies of an organization, it’s still important to understand what key stakeholders will require from your project or product. This understanding will frame how you speak or pitch to them, and better enable you to leverage their needs to support your cause.

On a whiteboard, write out all of your stakeholders in a circle, then define who interacts with whom, at what level and with what objectives. Connect similar minded stakeholders, use speech bubbles to summarize their basic positions and challenge the team to think of every possible stakeholder. That way, when you run into them in the hallway, you’ll know exactly how to speak about project X.

Continuums – On a scale of 1-5, who are we?

Using a brand attribute continuum is another easy way to gauge stakeholder sentiment around what defines the organization. Begin by placing a series of descriptive adjectives on the left side of the whiteboard or worksheet. Then, on the right side, write a series of opposite adjectives. For example, one line may have “classic” on the left and “contemporary” on the right. With a number of these written out, participants then select where their brand, company or product falls on the continuums. We have found that a one through ten scale creates too much of a granular discussion, so stick to a one through five scale.

During the discussion or after the workshop, look for areas of vast disagreement between stakeholder perceptions. These are opportunities to align the group and create a shared understanding of who you are.

Miscellaneous tips & tricks

These aren’t necessarily workshops, exercises or methods, but they’re things we’ve learned along the road that help make great strategic design.

Dot voting: In typical business meetings, the loudest voice often gets the most attention, so the cause of the loudest voice often gets the most support–and that ain’t right. Dot voting brings democracy into the boardroom because no matter how loud or how quiet, you’ve only got one sticky dot to place next to your idea of choice.

Always be listening: The value of a workshop is 1/4 what makes it on the whiteboard, and 3/4 the conversation that led to the decision. Don’t be in a rush to reach consensus if there’s valuable conversation happening right in front of you. In fact, as a practice, Visualhero will bring someone along to a workshop to solely document conversation. You’ll never know what nugget of conversation will spark an insight later on–but you likely won’t remember it if it’s not written down.

Get tangible: Use visual props such as sticky notes, markers and whiteboards. Using these types of tangible tools takes personal ownership away from individuals and makes their thoughts a physical object that can be discussed without the feelings. Visuals also help people create shared understanding within the group, which supports alignment and clarity.

Additional resources: As mentioned earlier, these are just our go-to workshops and exercises. Depending on the client, the project or the budget, we may create our own workshop, dive deeply into one specific area, or employ a grab bag approach with many different exercises. There are many, many wonderful resources if you’re looking to learn more about strategic design, design thinking or human-centered design. Here are just a few:

101 Design Methods by Vijay Kumar

Innovating For People: Handbook of Human-Centered Design Methods by Luma Institute

Stanford’s dschool

The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design by

All of these!

As with all schooling, once the learning is over, now it’s time to use what you’ve learned in the real world! These methods can be used for any number of projects, but their underlying purpose is always the same: to using creative problem solving, active collaboration and that three-ish pound of rubbery mass in your noggin’ to help people solve great, big, awesome problems.

And that’s the true joy, if you ask us.


Andy Van Solkema, OST Chief Designer

Andy Van Solkema,     OST Chief Designer

Functional design systems, and visual storytelling have long been a passion for Andy Van Solkema. From boyhood days of designing a neighborhood baseball league complete with team logos to designing for local, regional, and national companies, his passion has grown and evolved to leading a 12 person studio that is using design for unique outcomes that span stories, systems, processes and experiences.

Andy is a graduate of Grand Valley State University with BFA in Graphic Design and a Master’s of Design from Kendall College of Art and Design. Following graduation, Andy worked as a design consultant in the printing industry, graphic designer and art director in brand communications, and as an interaction design director. He enjoyed the variety of experiences, but ultimately something was missing.

In 2004, he started his own design studio, Visualhero Design. Initially working as a one-person shop in a home office, Andy grew the business in a slow, steady and smart way through the down economy. To differentiate themselves and to offer the most to their clients, in 2006 Andy and his team formally adopted user-center design principles with a research and systems approach to creative problem solving. In 2016, Visualhero was acquired by OST where Andy now serves as Chief Designer.  His team focuses on form, function, and meaning. The scope of work has grown to include graphic recording, data visualization, brand identity, interface design, information architecture, user experience and customer experience. They design brand communication, applications, websites, and business systems and processes that aren’t just easy on the eyes.  More importantly, they are designed for the user today and tomorrow.

Van Solkema has combined a systems and process mind with craft of design and creativity. He spends his time as an advocate for design, creative lead for the team, and managing design vision for OST / Visualhero Design. Although most days are spent directing design, running the business or meeting with clients, he enjoys using his experience helping GVSU Design Thinking Initiative and various nonprofit organizations. He also enjoys leading design workshops at his alma mater and other design education opportunities. 

Andy has been published in design books and publications and received accolades and awards for branding and design. Design has changed and although he is firmly rooted in West Michigan, the clientele has grown to include Amazon, Nest, Apple, Chamberlain, Capitol Studios, GM and a host of local, regional and national corporate clients, a handful of local and Bay Area startups. Well beyond what Andy could have ever imagined back in 2004. 

How to embrace the principles of Agile software development

13 Apr

Those who know me well know that I am obsessed with Alexander Hamilton. He’s the founding father you didn’t learn about in US History, mostly because he never became President. You probably know he was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr, you might even recognize him as the dude currently gracing your ten-dollar bill, but you probably don’t know that he was an orphan, an immigrant, and the guy who single-handedly created America’s financial system. (You should also thank him for the Constitution’s ratification – he wrote 51 of the 85 essays that make up the Federalist Papers.)

My obsession with Alexander Hamilton has taught me a number of things – about myself, about my work, and about how to simultaneously serve with humility and fight for what you believe in. More surprising, though, he’s also taught me something about embracing the principles of Agile software development.


“A well adjusted person is one who makes the same mistake twice without getting nervous.”


Think about that for a minute. It seems to run contrary to everything you were taught in school, doesn’t it? Making a mistake is bad enough, but making the same mistake twice, that’s unforgivable! We think of a mistake as the opposite of a success. We’re wrong.

Our software development delivery process at OST is based on the Agile Manifesto ( The Agile Manifesto, and Agile software development in general exposes to us a core concept that iteration is a key to success. Responding to change wins out over following a plan every time.

In software development, this makes sense. Try something. If it doesn’t work, try something else. Do something. If it doesn’t match the user’s expectations, learn from it and do something else. Build something. If it doesn’t satisfy all of your needs, build more. This is how we do what we do. We start somewhere, and then we iterate. We test out ideas and approaches. We validate concepts and database constructs. We build, tear down, and build again. We iterate, iterate, iterate; each generation an improvement on the last.

It’s great! It’s a process that makes great solutions, and a framework that sets projects up to continually improve. At its core, continuous improvement requires that you have room to improve; embraces the notion that there is always opportunity to improve.

In life, though, that’s a hard concept to wrap our heads around. We don’t provide ourselves with a lot of grace to make mistakes. We tend not to look fondly on things that need improvement. And our lexicon is full of really awful words that we toss around at ourselves (and others) when things don’t go as well as we hoped. You failed. You blew it. You screwed up. You made a mess of things. You got it all wrong. You lost sight of the big picture. They’re terrible, soul-crushing words. Defeat. Collapse. Crash. Bomb. Die. They’re all words and phrases we employ to remind ourselves just how awful it is to fail.

Enough already!

Here’s what Alexander Hamilton taught me. It’s not awful to make a mistake. It’s essential. Let me say that again – it’s that important.

Failure is required for success.

It’s a foundational principle in practical Agile software development, and a foundational principle in life.

Fail. Make mistakes.

Then learn from them.


Andrew J. Powell Principal- Application Development

Andrew Powell serves the Application Development practice at OST , providing guidance, strategic support, and candy to more than fifty developers and consultants. Andrew has been a technology consultant for more than twenty years. In addition to consulting, Andrew is a frequent public speaker in technology circles, and loves to talk about the coming Robot Apocalypse and how application developers are positioned to defend the world against our future robot overlords. When not cowering in fear, Andrew makes his home in Grand Rapids, Michigan.