All posts by bradleykal

Facebook is making me stupid

Or: why important things get dumped off my timeline, while fart jokes and baby photos go to the top?

So let’s get something straight, I do not consider Facebook “serious” media. I don’t look their for breaking news. Maybe 1 in 100 of my friends posts a relevant view of humanity from time to time. Maybe 5 in 100 post an especially good rant. Mostly, it’s fart jokes and baby picks and spying on people you sorta use to know to feel like you still know them. And I accept this.

So again, Facebook is not serious. Shouldn’t be. 90% of the people there are just there are just voyeurs into someone else’s perceived life.

Nor do I profess to be talented in the realm of social media. I post on rare occasions, usually ignore friend requests, send belated birthday wishes, and don’t really check in with much regularity.

So this pissed me off.

Every-once in a blue moon I do have something that does piss me off. That combined with a few cocktails is a bad combo. So when John Oliver went on a rant on about for-profit universities, that kinda got me off my proverbial ass. I re-posted his petition against for-profit universities, added a few of my thoughts at the time, and patted my moral-compass on teh back.

Serious thought

Again, I have less than zero political affiliations, but when it comes to education and taking advantage of people, it hits my moral compass below the belt. I work with a kid who will be paying off his for profit art education for the next 10 years.

Am I right? Am I coherent? Does it matter? Apparently not, since that post never appeared on my timeline.

Now feeling a little bad about my outraged opinion, and breaking some unsaid social norm about everything in the world just being all fucking ducky, I posted something light hearted and stupid to balance it out. Scotch, scotch, scotch… I love scotch. Yes, an immature response to a moment of social clarity. Admittedly, I’m a balance of 10% smart and 90% 12-year old boy making poopy jokes.

I love scotch

So how did a serious thought get buried and a funny joke get liked? Is there a special genie behind the facebook algorithm trying to make sure people still like me and sensed a serious subject?  Apparently not.

When I looked the next morning and saw a bunch of notification my scotch post was liked, but not likes to a serious thought, I basically felt like an ass. Then I went through the phase of denial – maybe I stopped myself from posting it and it never went out?

working from hammock day

My timeline certainly says so… Look, it’s a scotch joke followed by a working from hammock photo…. As epic as working from hammock day was, I’m a little irritated that my serious post fell right off the face of even my own timeline, much less anyone else’s timeline. Weird shit.

Not sure how to finish this thought up except to say, thank you facebook. You are making us all dumber by the day. Somewhere in the near future, when mankind has stopped communicating with each other verbally and instead just stares at their iphone, we will all live in a utopia where nothing is upsetting in the world. Because if there is something upsetting or serious going on, nobody is going to read it anyhow. 

Successful software starts with a Design Assessment

Lack of a cohesive product design is the quickest killer of a software project. If you have an idea, you need a design assessment before you ever write your first line of code. And here’s why.

0) What is a design assessment?

sparc SDLC 2

A design assessment is a 3-4 week pre-development process that gives perspective to an entrepreneur’s idea prior to building software.

This process focuses on understanding the goal/vision and working towards being able to show it through a prototype. Often an entire project is too detailed for this short of a timeframe, so we focus on key user-flows. Identify several key features users need, and work towards flushing those out.

A typical assessment can be as quick as 3 weeks with these key phases:

  • Discovery & Research
  • User Experience Design
  • Prototype & Deliver

A typical SPARC assessment team needs the following roles, with one person fulfilling several roles:

  • design strategist
  • user experience designer
  • visual designer
  • UI developer
  • requirements expert
  • project manager
  • software engineer as a technical consultant

One of our most successful assessments was for GWIG – Go Where I GO. GIWG is a product that allows a user to recommend a business to a friend. During the assessment, I filled the early roles of Strategy & UX, with our commercial services Director acting as PM & light requirements. Later into the assessment, we scaled the team with another designer, Matt Brooks, who invested in the idea and began taking the early user flows and adding visual design detail to them.

One simple strategy when working with a new client – keep the assessment fun & make the process painless for them. During GWIG, we added characters from the movie old school to the prototype. Having Gordon Pritchard tell the story was a lot more interesting than a John Doe. And as designers, a good sense of humor was a great motivator.

1) Tailor the results to the Client’s needs

We’ve done dozen’s of assessments this past year. Each assessment has a different goal the client is looking to achieve.

  • For a entrepreneur with an early stage idea looking to raise capital, we often deliver the assessment as a pitch deck for them.
  • For an established product looking to re-design, we deliver detailed requirements & design comps at the results.
  • For a client looking to go straight to development, we create a clickable prototype in HTML. By using production-ready front-end code, the prototype is also first step of development.

In each scenario, the results are tailored to match the clients needs.

2) No wasted effort

When we pitch clients a design assessment rather than jumping straight into building a product, we occasionally get some confusion of if this is an extra step.

One is “What, you don’t want all my money upfront?”

The second is “I don’t want to pay for an extra step, I want to start now.”

Our response is: you’d have to do this anyways. A design and requirements session is required before you can get started building software. It’s part of the process. The only difference with an assessment is we’re compartmentalizing these elements before jumping into a development cycle. It’s expensive to have a development team sitting around waiting for work, it’s even more expensive to have developers building the wrong thing.

With a design assessment, you’re only paying for the part of the process you need now. All of the work is transferable to the next phases of the project.

3) Design is the first step in visualizing your product

When Charlie from GIWG first approached us, he had a napkin sketch of a logo and an idea. He left a lot of room for us as designers to listen to his goal, and design the user experience around those goals. He also appreciated our take on simplicity in the UX. Once we moved past wireframes and began layering on elements of visual design, he was able to begin seeing his vision come to life. It’s incredible what a good collaboration of vision & design can produce.


4) Results you can take on the road

Most entrepreneurs test there idea by discussing with others. There are many components of a solid business plan, but being able to see the final product flushed out is the strongest litmus test. Nothing elicits feedback like being able to see yourself using the finished product.

5) Constantly test your idea and iterate

Design assessments are never meant to be the finished product. Through discussing with others, or living with the prototype for a short time, you’ll see it’s strengths and weaknesses. The design decisions you arrive at during the assessment are not meant to be final, so don’t treat them as such. They’re simply the first iteration – a first testable version of your product that you can learn from and improve upon.

In the 12+ assessments we’ve done, we’ve never gone straight to code with a finished design. We’ve continued to iterate & improve on the original design. It’s this cycle of learning & improving that creates a successful user experience & well designed product.

To Conclude

Using the design assessment process to visualize that idea brings the short-term results of being able to visualize the idea, build a relationship, and test that idea. And the long-term result is better quality software and an easier development process.

Insourcing & leading a creative team

We’ve had a brief pause lately to focus back on our team & what our strategy for growth is. The “design team” at SPARC has been in existence over 3 years now, with me learning to lead while building the team from the ground up. It’s been the most rewarding experience of my professional career to be able to foster such a unique group of creatives and facilitate achieving results.

As we’ve grown, there has always been a question of scale – how big do we let the team get? We’ve gone from three to as many as 14. During this process of growth we’ve been very careful who we hire and that the timing with business is correct. We’ve always had the intent of keeping the team as small & agile as possible, but still large enough accommodate the different types of work that comes in. We handle everything from User-Experience for enterprise software, to front-end development within a scrum team, to branding for our commercial clients. The designers we bring onto the team have to have the range to accommodate many different disciplines associated with “design”.

This latest pause has given me time to research a little more about the term “insourcing” and what it means to lead an in-house design group. While our team is more oriented towards software development & UX than in-house “creative services”, I found a lot of good gems in this article by the Chief Creative of Capstrat.

The reason companies in-source are pretty easy:

1. To save money. The simple, traditional in-house view: value = cost

2. To better control an organization’s image… and to save money The insource perspective: value = cost + brand + expertise + familiarity

Couple other great thoughts about the value of insourcing, many of which helped us successfully launch products such as Teamphoria in a short time:

Insourced employees create value because they:

  • Have a personal commitment to the greater purpose of the organization
  • Earn the trust and confidence of executive decision-makers
  • Understand key business drivers
  • Know the culture and can facilitate faster decision-making
  • Aid in speed to market

The last element of the article was the subject that has become my new passion of late, leadership:

The perfect internal creative leader:

  • Fosters a safe creative environment.
  • Knows when to take risks.
  • Has a sense of urgency
  • Is a spotlight-shunning consigliere.
  • Has high standards and a strong moral compass
  • Is a tireless evangelist.

In the very beginning, our team focused a ton on growing SPARC’s brand and image. Since then we’ve gotten an amazing advocate for our brand in Chad and move towards focusing on designing user-experiences for our clients. We’ve moved from an “overhead” services-focused team towards a billable asset to the company. Some level of design is included in every contract we work on. And design as a competency has top-level visibility within our organization.

To sum it up, as Adobe and Fast Company just pointed out, every designer is happiest when they know they’re fulfilling a need. Thanks for reading! 


Understanding the Financial Return of Design

I believe one of the hardest issues as a “designer” is proving that what you do has tangible value to a business. That the time and extra expense of designing a product or user-experience returns financially.

Smart companies & consumers recognize this. Simple quality over cost result: as a business you want long-term results, as a consumer you want an experience or product that works beautifully. However in a cost-conscious, business driven mindset, it’s difficult to ascertain the short-term goals of design sometimes.  Especially in the era of software start-ups & tight timelines. This recent article in HBR has got me thinking time and time again about the value of design inside of business:

From Target to Uber, business managers everywhere are starting to understand that the strategic use of design is making a difference in achieving outsized business results.

Consumers recognize and respect companies that put design and design thinking into what they produce. Marketing is skin deep – the actual user experience needs to be supported from the beginning in fundamentally “designed” way.

And that starts with having the design competency represented at the highest level of your company – along side engineering and other operations.  The article points out that of the 100 companies indexed, only Apple has Design reporting directly to the CEO. I’m fortunate at SPARC that they see & promote the value of design within our company.

So why I’ve re-read this article 3+ times now:

  1. As a designer, I appreciate that it validates my profession, and the passion with which we approach problem-solving to insure a better user experience.
  2. As an investor, I already own stock in several of the design-centric companies they focus on. In the age of “socially responsible” mutual funds, why isn’t there a “designers” mutual fund focusing on companies that put design first?

Companies that get it, that make design part of their business philosophy not only gain consumer confidence, but also higher returns. 228% higher returns according to this HBR article:

How can this type of commitment to design contribute to results? In Interbrand’s 2013 list of the World’s most valuable brands, Nike ranks 24th, two slots up from the prior year and a 13% increase in value to $17.085 billion. Next to Apple, Nike had the highest shareholder returns in our index — from 2003- 2013 Nike’s market cap increased from under $6 billion to $70 billion, or 1,095% over the last ten years.  Further, Nike was ranked the #7 most innovative company by Fast Company in 2014, and the 13th most admired company by Forbes magazine.

The bottom line is that companies that use design strategically grow faster and have higher margins than their competitors. High growth rates and margins make these companies very attractive to shareholders, increasing competition for ownership. This ultimately pushes their stock prices higher than their industry peers. The returns in our Design Value Index were 2.28 times the size of the S&P’s returns over the last 10 years. Neither hedge fund managers, nor venture capitalists, nor mutual fund managers came anywhere close to these results.

Sorry for the repost, but this is a subject that is fascinating to me. And the HBR article is the first I’ve seen that provides tangible numbers around the financial results of good design. Someday soon I hope to be posting more about what “Design Index” fund looks like, and how I can bring it from idea into a reality I can invest in.

Basecamp archeology

So we use basecamp A LOT or internal design communication, and cataloguing the random ideas that make life amazing. We use basecamp so much we’ve created around 212 projects in a little over 24 months.

A few of the better basecamp projects include titles such as:

  • Brad’s really bad Venture ideas
  • Captains log
  • Sparc Skunkworks
  • #EvenYourKidsThinkYourDumb

Had a co-worker heading out to my old stomping ground of the South Bay of Los Angeles. Decided to make him a checklist in Basecamp of bars to visit. I give you “Where should Andrew drink in LA“.

  • Hermosa Beach – best bet. MTV Spring Break

    •  FFFF (Fat Face Finners Fish Shack) Hermosa pier – boston bar

    •  Henessys – upstairs roof bar, view of ocean, non-annoying irish bar

    •  any other bar with hot chicks. they all have them.
  • Santa Monica Bars – on Main Street SM, not near beach

  • Manhattan beach bars – snobby white people

    •  the beach house – bottom of the main street towards the water, go to the upstairs bar. fancy pants but the view of the ocean is killer.

    •  simmzy’s – next to starbucks, great burger and beer selection, crowded

    •  Ercoles – EPIC shithole, cash only, don’t get in a fight.

    •  Get a bike – ride around. stop at every bar you pass. good luck.

    •  sharks cove – shithole. has beer
  • Playa Del Rey

    •  POW (prince of whales) – there is NO reason to go to Playa, but if you do this place is an epic shithole. think a much less clean version of Maga Rua without the irish theme.
  • Venice bars

    •  Never really went drinking in Venice, it’s a freakshow, don’t go.
  • Redondo Beach Pier

    •  Najia’s – has 500 beers with about 30 on draft. Visit before the sun sets our you’ll be part of a mexican knife fight. really.


and there is my favorite part about where I work, the culture.

Follow up on the “Agile Design” post

We re-posted a few thoughts I had on the Agile Design to our mothership blog on and it attracted some interesting comments on reddit. Got me thinking a little more about the intent of what I was writing and any confusion it may have caused. Probably would have been a better idea to approach the subject in a series of smaller more focused posts, but fuck it, I don’t have that kind of foresight.

These were a few comments that really got me thinking:

RE: What is this Agile Design you speak of?

“Agile Design” is a design process tailored to work closely with developers practicing the  Agile Methodology to build software.

That’s really the cleanest way I can package it up. Leading the design team inside of an agile software development company for the past 3 years, our process is ever adapting to work more closely with the clients and the developers.

  • Communicate – daily stand-ups rituals through agile scrum encourage communication between designers, developers and engage the client
  • Collaborate – teams of designers with different strengths learning from each other
  • Iterate – use sprints to scope work into manageable chunks & know that you will have time to iterate & refine a feature over several sprints
  • Pivot – sprints allow you to pivot to a new goal as the business goals
  • Finish – complete segments of work by aligning to sprint cycle & project goals

RE: value Specialists vs. Generalists on an design team?

There was a comment on reddit about specialist vs. generalists. This may not have been the intent of the original post, but it got my gears turning, so thank you.

We only hire “Generalists“.

Having experienced many different design roles in my professional career, I’ve had periods of time where I’ve focused intensely on a “specialized” segment of work. User experience on the web was a focus for about 3 years. Proper, semantic front-end markup use to keep me up at night for a couple years. Before that it was advertising & graphic design… I’m the generalist because learning new specialties every few years keeps me going.  I’ve worked at places where only one of my skills is valued as a specialist, I’d never want to do that again.

And that’s what I look for when we hire. Someone who maybe very good at an aspects of design, but has the aptitude to learn and adapt. We are in “startup” mode, as another commenter else pointed out. Below is an ugly but effective diagram of the “what” disciplines our design team practices:


We do have several people with “specialize” degrees in Human Factors. They focus primarily on requirements, wireframes, and user testing. But these same people stretch themselves to understand and participate in all the other aspects of design our team does.

Sorry – probably too much on that one…. it’s a topic worthy of a separate post, so I appreciate the original comment.

Closing thought

I’ll admit I might be abusing the term “Agile” for my own purposes. But “Agile Design” is the best way I can understand the process we’ve adopted at SPARC. And in agile fashion, there’s probably a few more iterations to better flush out this concept.

Thank you again for the interest!

Digging out of my own artistic mess!

photo 2There are few breaks in life as a parent, but i’m currently enjoying a short one as Heidi & Naish are up North in the wilds of Minnesota. Since’s Naish birth, my home office (studio?) has become a dumping ground of bills, broken electronics, unread magazines, and anything else that comes along. While it’s gathered a very nice “patina” of artistic clutter, it’s also just becoming an unworkable, disorganized craphole. So much so, that my 5AM wake-ups to “work” usually just involve trying to find space to put a cup of coffee down.

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Giant UX Conference recap: thinking about the “whole” user experience

Rolling through the final day of Giant UX conference here in Charleston as I began to think about what I’d take away from it. It’s been a great experience meeting new people and filling my brain with what I hope to be some actionable new ideas. So much saturation, what would stick.

Maybe it’s because so many speakers oriented themselves to speak about not just design, but experience design. There were several folks, including Jared M. Spool & Samantha Starmer, who hit on this specifically. Jared used references about how the apple store is a vital part of the UX of an Apple product. Samantha got my brain running on integrating physical & digital. Talking about the “space between” when designing a holistic user experience. It’s not just designing for digital, the user-experience needs to be thought of as all encompassing.

It’s an interesting shift for me – with a background in architecture, I was studying to influence the way people interacted with the built environment. Now as a designer of digital & software, we’re circling back to an understanding where the experience isn’t constrained to the device.

Not sure yet how this will manifest itself, but it’s timely after we’ve spend the past 6 months looking at the office environment at Sparc and how that effects our employee’s experience. Seems a little more vague on how to integrate directly into a commercial project, but it reenforces my feelings about user testing what we create in real environments. The physical nature is ever more important, as these things we create digitally now increasingly push back into our physical experience.


What an Agile Design Process looks like

This isn’t the first time I’ve thought a lot about what an Agile Design process looks like. We practice it every day at SPARC without any formal definition. As our design team has grown in the past 3 years, we’ve let go of some traditional design practices in favor of ones that more closely match the work we’re doing. Our projects range from UX for software to marketing websites. Each project is slightly different, based on the team and the overall goal. When we call it a process, we’re really just looking at the common practices that make any type of project successful inside our environment.

agile-design-process Continue reading

Using Keynote during your design process

keynote screen design

Using keynote as an organizer for your thoughts during the design process:

  • Create an outline or screen inventory towards the story I’d like to tell.
  • As I’m working through the wireframes, I’ll record my thoughts as bullets into the keynote
  • Formatting your thoughts – keep it simple, go high level then break out specific UI elements.
  • Most importantly – always be ready to present your ideas, at any stage in the process.

Formalizing designs in a presentation has it’s advantages:

  • Keeps you focused
  • Keeps the audience focused
  • Is portable – can be emailed later w/out lengthy explanation
  • Is progressive – once begun, you can simply layer increasing information on top of the first presentation.
  • Is repeatable – once done, you can leverage the same presentation style for other projects.


Pro-tip: I work almost exclusively in Adobe Illustrator when wire-framing. It works great for layering increasing detail/resolution on the design from functional wireframes to final designs. Since the most recent Keynote software update, Keynote has issues copying vector designs from Illustrator directly to the page. Before you copy an element from Adobe Illustrator, outline the text (Command + Shift + “O”) in Adobe Illustrator, then copy to Keynote. It adds a step in the process, but is quicker than going between Illustrator > Photoshop, and the Keynote/PDF you result with is high quality with a smaller file size. Small file size is key if you’re uploading multiple version to Basecamp or sharing in email.