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When to Engage an Outside Design Team

8 Jun

Design provides value to a business at any stage, but there are specific points in your company or project where engaging with a design firm provides the maximum amount of value to your organization.

Here are some of the best times to bring in outside support from a design team.

When you need help articulating an idea

You might have specific ideas around the next iteration of your product and are wondering what to do next. Maybe you have some sketches on a napkin that you want to socialize internally or with strategic partners.

At this point, design can help with customer research and validation to ensure your idea is strong and defendable. From there, an infographic, strategy deck, prototype or storyboard can help you start gathering real feedback from your customers or stakeholders.

When you don’t have in-house design leadership

Depending on your company, you might not have sufficient design talent in-house. Maybe you only have access to a small team of designers, but what your project really needs is a seasoned design team to lead the initiative or share the methods and process to inform the organization of a user-centered approach.

Senior designers are capable of seeing the larger project vision. They’re communication double-edged swords: they can keep junior designers on task, while also communicating high-level strategy to stakeholders.

Experienced design teams bring to the table a set of standards and best practices that your team can rely on and reference. The devil is often in the details, which is where a seasoned design team with years “under their belt” can set you up for success.

When there is uncertainty on direction

Have you ever realized that you spend more time talking about what you’re doing than actually doing what you’re doing? If you answered yes, you’re not alone.

This is often a signal that your team is unclear on what you’re building and where you’re headed. Working with a design team at this point helps align the team around a vision — a vision that’s created through the lens of your customers. At this point, design can also help to create a shareable document or prototype to communicate your product’s direction.

There’s too much work and not enough talent

So much to do, so little time — and so few resources. Maybe you just raised money, have a new opportunity or a shorter timeline. Either way, you could use some support to come alongside your team.

Bringing in an external design team, especially one that is accustomed to collaboration, can help give you the extra hands you need while also bringing an often-needed set of fresh eyes.

You’re looking for new ways to serve your customer

There are a million ways to provide value to your customers, but you’re looking to find the one that works best for you. Because you live and breathe today’s version of your business, customers and product, you could potentially use some help planning for the future.

An outside design team is a great way to generate insights, new opportunities and product ideas. They will start by using you and your customers to learn how things are today and then help imagine how they add value tomorrow.

You’re looking for ways to be better

Products and brands can become stale after a while and you may be looking for a refresh. You also might realize that your customers have changed over time and your messaging no longer speaks to them.

Utilizing a design team can help by seeing how you resonate with customers. They can test and gather insights to help with your next iteration.

These circumstances encompass some of the hardest problems organizations face and engaging with an outside design team is an efficient and valuable way to solve them. This inherently collaborative process aligns the key players in your organization to strategically meet your customers’ needs and provide value.

 

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. 

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?

Empathy.

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?

empathy

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”.

“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 dictionary.com!) 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.

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 (www.agilemanifesto.org). 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.

How Software Developers Learned from the Food Service Industry

2 Mar

We had a kind of odd Leap Day celebration this year at OST – we ran a one-day-only pop-up restaurant from within our headquarters in Grand Rapids. I know what you’re thinking: “Wait, what?” I’ll say it again. We served breakfast and lunch to nearly 80 customers, including a Rice Krispy-crusted French toast, an eggplant, squash and zucchini tower, and perhaps the fanciest lasagna roulades I’ve ever seen.

Why would a technology firm – a company that prides itself in our Design to Datacenter delivery framework – spend the last Monday of the month running a restaurant? It’s a fair question, and something I spent a lot of time thinking about as I stood in our lobby, decked out in my Café OST t-shirt and seating guests and clearing tables.

Here, then, are the three most obvious lessons learned:

We succeed and fail together. Whether you’re taking orders, plating lunches, running food, or clearing tables, you can’t run a restaurant without counting on the rest of the team to support you. What would happen if, every time a customer gave an order to the waiter, your waiter said, “I can’t cook that, so I don’t know what you’re going to get.”

It’s true, though. Your waiter isn’t going to cook your lunch, but they are trusting that the kitchen staff will, and that trust is so strong that they make recommendations, take our orders, and never hint that there is any chance that things won’t go exactly as planned.

Is that dishonest? Is it wrong that I’m confirming details that are outside of my control? Absolutely not. It’s essential to our success. As a team, each of us has unique abilities and responsibilities, and we’re trusting on each member of the team to fulfill their role. The sales team can’t write code, and the delivery team isn’t responsible for selling; but without the two working together, trusting that they can do their jobs, we’d all be out of work. Whether your work is in a restaurant or you’re part of a complex software delivery team, whether you realize it or not, we succeed and fail together.

Details matter. One of our customers today had a silverware roll that was missing a fork. Something as simple as a fork has the ability to define or deny a customer an enjoyable experience. How can I eat a salad – even the best salad in the world – without a fork? I can’t. Paying attention to those details, working to ensure that no detail is overlooked that nothing is taken for granted – that’s the most-basic building block of successful service.

I don’t make forks. I wasn’t even responsible for forks today. I’m not even sure that I know where the forks were kept – but I know that forks matter. And I was on the look-out, every time we reset a table for the rest of the day – to ensure everyone had a fork. We each have our individual roles and responsibilities, but we’re all responsible for quality control. They say the devil is in the details – the details matter, and it’s everyone’s job to keep them in focus if our goal is to deliver quality.

Service is service. Whether you’re waiting tables, baking quiches, or plating lunches, you’re in service. Whether we’re writing code, configuring RAID arrays, updating a virtual environment or providing strategic assessments, you’re in service. Whether we think of it that way or not, we’re a service provider, and our (unspoken) commitment to all of our clients is the exact same in our real lives as it was in Café OST today – to deliver exceptional service.

We have the luxury as consultants to define our customers’ expectations. Then we get the pleasure of delivering on those expectations. That contract defines what we do, and defines everything we do in the service industry. I am proud to have dedicated my life to the service industry, and thankful that I got to spend the day reminding myself of this.

I’m thankful that I work for a company where we’re granted that luxury to learn. There is so much to do, and only so many hours in a month – how great is it to have been given the grace to spend a whole day of that time focusing my energy on the core of what we do?

Here’s my call to action for you: Find the time. Every moment you spend learning is a moment that will reward you tenfold. Every minute you spend exploring why you do what you do is a minute that will color all the minutes that follow it.

Your order is in the window.

Eat up, while the plate’s still hot.

_ _ _

Andrew Powell edited photo

Andrew J Powell, Application Development Principal, OST

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.