Tag Archives: business strategy

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. 

Let’s Talk Ketchup

1 Jun

ketchup

I was in a conversation yesterday about a forecasting tool we use to manage our sales pipeline in Application Development. I’m frustrated about some of the tool’s limitations, and I was ranting to one of my peers, Rob, that I wanted to throw it out and build something new.

Rob tilted his head to me and gave me a narrow gaze. “Or…”, he offered. “You could just find a way to make it better.”

And that’s something, I am embarrassed to say, that hadn’t occurred to me. As a self-proclaimed smart guy who sometimes wears the mantle of leader, I all too often feel like it’s my job to generate new ideas, to create new solutions, to invent my way out of any issue, dilemma or challenge. Because what’s more American than creating things, am I right?

Which makes me think about ketchup.

What’s more American than ketchup? We put it on our burgers, we put it on our fries, on our eggs, our hash browns, and in our macaroni and cheese. We serve it with our breakfast, our lunch, and our dinner. No less than 45 American companies manufacture and distribute their own variations of ketchup to every corner of the globe. The red on the American flag might as well be painted with it – it’s that American. When was the last time you went to a casual restaurant or “American Bistro” and they didn’t have a bottle at the ready, or pre-set at your table?

It’s as American as apple pie. More! As American as freedom! Ketchup is the liquid equivalent of a bald eagle clutching a McDonalds bag as he soars over the Rocky Mountains and into the setting sun. It’s that American! But where did this stuff come from, this American red gold?

Does it matter?

Let’s dig a bit and see. Ketchup came to the Western world in the late 17th century, given to European traders in their travels to the Far East. There are stories dating back to 1690 which describe a vinegary, pickled condiment found in the Fujian region of coastal China reportedly called “ke-chaip”, and similar stories from 1710 and ’11 describing an Indonesian “brined” sauce referred to sometimes as “kecap” and sometimes as “ketjap”.

Nobody knows what it was about this exotic condiment that westerners found so intoxicating, but we sure did love it. We were making catchup in Great Britain as early as 1727 – nearly 50 years before the American Revolution! The condiment was so important and pervasive that it had already found its way into a “new world” cookbook as early as 1801. In America, catsup (apparently it was Americanization that changed catchup to catsup) was made regionally and sold by farmers across much of the 1800’s.

In 1876, the H.J. Heinz company started mass-producing their own unique blend of catsup, and – in the hopes that it would make their product stand out from the farmer’s alternatives – they decided to call their sauce ketchup. Over the next 10 years, every other manufacturer followed Heinz’ lead, and as the manufactured food industry exploded in the new world so did ketchup.

Fast forward a hundred and twenty-five years, your local grocer probably stocks between ten and twenty brands of ketchup (some even spelling it catsup again) – all manufactured in the U.S. and distributed to every country in the world. There are 196 nations on the face of our planet, and the one thing they have in common – all hyperbole aside – is the presence of ketchup.

Weird, right?

Americans didn’t discover or invent ketchup. We weren’t the first to create it, the first to document it, the first to fine-tune it, the first to trade it, or the first to sell it. We just took something good and made it better. We looked at what we had, and – through trial and error, through experimentation and discovery – we turned it into something better.

Which brings me back to my conversation with Rob.

We’re often in the situation that we need to determine whether to make something or to take something that already exists and make it better. In Application Development, we’re probably in this situation more than most; but I think everyone can relate: Fix the deck or build a new one? Steam-clean the couch or buy a new one? Sand and re-stain the table or buy a new one? When we’re in those situations, it almost always seems like the “best” choice is to make something new instead of taking something that already exists and making it better.

The next time you’re in that situation – and the next time I’m in that situation – consider this:

EASIER DOES NOT EQUAL BETTER

Just because it’s easier doesn’t mean it’s better. Just because you want to doesn’t mean you should. Just because you thought of it, that doesn’t make it the right choice. Maybe take a moment, the next time you find yourself facing a make it better moment, to dip your decisions in ketchup, that uniquely American condiment.

Americans didn’t make ketchup, We just made it better.

 

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.

 

ERP systems or your kid’s bedroom…nothing improves without a little extra work

11 May

messy room

(In the voice of the late Andy Rooney) “Did you ever wonder why clothes never pick themselves up off the floor?”

I have a degree in mechanical engineering, and though I’ve spent the better part of the last two decades working with ERP software, it seems I’m an engineering nerd first and software geek second. Sometimes that engineering nerd leaks through when working with ERP software.

Many times over the last 20 years or so, I’ve encountered the Second Law of Thermodynamics in action. What does that have to do with ERP systems? It’s actually a great analogy to what I observe time and time again.

The second law deals with Entropy. Entropy can be defined as a property of a closed system and is a measurement of the amount of disorder in the system. Organized = low entropy. Chaos = high entropy. My wife’s closet = low entropy. My basement shop = high entropy. The second law says, left to itself, the entropy in a system will either stay the same or it will increase (become more disorganized). It never decreases by itself. In order to decrease entropy, you have to add work.

You see this all the time. A common example is adding some sugar to a beverage. It may sink to the bottom at first, but it will eventually dissolve, becoming diffused through the beverage. It has gone from an ordered state of a solid to a less ordered state of a solution. The sugar will not, by itself, “un-dissolve” to the bottom of the glass again. If you want to get the sugar out, you will have to do work.

You see it every day next to the kitchen sink as dirty dishes, or the clothes on the floor in the kid’s bedroom. Or the autumn leaves in the yard, or the general state of the garage. Entropy is all around us, and it’s always increasing unless we work to reverse it.

I see this also applying to ERP software. ERP software is all about making order from chaos. It allows organizations to know the financial position of the company, or the state of inventory in the warehouse, or the planning of materials in manufacturing. Companies see features like locations in warehouses, or item lot control, or multi-dimensional accounting; and they think they can get better control over their business processes. And they can. But they forget that they are trying to reverse entropy and that requires work.

ERP systems promise to make it easy to add control. Just create locations in the warehouse so everything has a place. Or add commodity codes to the part numbers so you can report on them. Or have a gazillion ledger accounts to track the most minute cost. If that is what your business needs, great. But regardless of what the ERP system promises, remember that essentially what you are asking for is a reversal of entropy. If the organization is not willing to put in the work to maintain the commodity codes, or mapping costs to ledger accounts, or making sure everything is in its place in the warehouse; you can actually end up with more chaos.

When implementing ERP systems, or any system for that matter, organizations should think about the effort required to maintain that system and if they are willing to expend the effort and define who is responsible for the effort. I have seen many instances where an organization decided to put a control in place, but never assigned responsibility or allocated the resource to maintain it, and as a result ended up with more entropy than when they started.

Entropy… it’s so prevalent we don’t even notice it unless we think about it. But when it comes to ERP systems, we need to be mindful of it when making configuration decisions.

 

Dave Trayers- ERP Business Development Manager

Dave Trayers- ERP Business Development Manager

Based in the OST Minneapolis office,  Dave Trayers is the Business Development Manager of the OST ERP team with over 17 years of Baan/ERPLN experience.  A native of New England, Dave holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering; and before getting into IT worked in diverse fields ranging from nuclear attack submarines, aerospace materials, snack food production and automotive tools.  He’s held the position of manufacturing engineer, production supervisor, engineering manager and operations manager.

Immediately prior to joining OST, Dave was the IT Director for Nilfisk, a manufacturer of commercial cleaning equipment in Plymouth, MN and throughout North America.  He helped implement Baan IV in the late 90’s and two major upgrades to ERPLN (FP3 and FP7) since.  Nilfisk made several acquisitions over the years, so Dave has lots of experience in bringing new facilities into ERPLN.

Dave lives in Minnesota with his wife Liz.  He has two grown daughters, one in college and the other lives in Washington, DC.  In his spare time, Dave is a part-time professional photographer, and enjoys golfing, cycling, sailing and target shooting.  He is also chair of the board of Saint Paul Ballet, which means he has very little time for golfing, cycling, sailing and target shooting.

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.