June 12, 2014
When we talk about what makes us unique as an agency, the simple answer is always, ‘the collective insights and perspectives of the exceptional team we’ve assembled.’ After all, digital agencies are all in a similar race towards innovation. Our processes may be slightly different, the outputs may change from agency to agency, but the commonality is always in the quality of each agency’s bench in supporting their own unique advantage. As agency owners, we work to build our team around what we believe will give us that advantage. It’s like a giant game of chess. This is a people business. And the team with the best people wins.
In recent years, the digital agency landscape has changed, and our focus on providing a consultancy-like approach to strategy demands a certain degree of talent that simply was not as great a focus in the past. While Research and User Experience has always been a part of what we do, it’s become a core focus in the past few years.
So, in 2011 we set out to build a User Experience practice. This was no easy process. We had a very specific set of criteria we were looking for in our team lead, based on the role of UX historically within our process, and as part of our offering. Finding the right individual was proving to be a drawn out challenge. Specifically, finding someone with a strong track record, working in a complex environment, educated yet not driven by academic approaches, and willing to adapt to, yet challenge our previous ways of doing things meant our search would take months, not weeks.
Finding the right talent is tough.
After meeting with a number of candidates, we just weren’t happy with our options. These people clearly all had talent and experience, but not the specific kind of experience that we were looking for.
Finally, someone reached out unconventionally and caught our attention. Ryan Opina reached out via a Twitter direct message to me, inquiring about the role and requesting a meeting. This was exactly what we were looking for: someone ready and willing to break the rules from the very start.
Ryan joined the agency as Director of User Experience in 2012, immediately stepping into project work, and quickly bringing the right mix of process and flexibility to our approach. His past experience – leading hardware and software product plans for Nokia, and researching consumer behaviors, market needs, and developing business strategies for interactive products and online services at Microsoft Game Studios - has proven to be incredibly valuable as Ryan switches his focus from internal to external client strategy across verticals.
Over the past two years, we’ve continued to invest in our UX practice, giving Ryan the freedom to build his team around a diverse group of strategists from a range of backgrounds. As this team continues to stabilize, we’ve also begun to define our internship program, to better find and cultivate the talent that will allow us to create an industry leading UX team and agency.
Stepping up our strategic game.
Today we’re stepping up our strategy game with the promotion of Ryan Opina to our leadership team as Vice President of User Experience. This ensures our strategy offering is central to the decisions we make as an agency, the business we pursue, and the work we create with our clients.
With this, we thought it would be a great opportunity to check in with Ryan on his perspective of the current state of digital, what’s trending, what’s not, and where brands need to focus their energy in the coming months.
Q. Mobile clearly needs to be a core channel for most brands these days. What would you say are the most critical considerations for brands that are just beginning to explore this space?
Ryan: Context. It’s important to understand how mobile relates to your specific business. In many cases it’s not just about optimizing what you have on the desktop, but rather understanding the different use cases that come with consumers accessing information while they are distracted, or trying to turn what could be wasted time into productive time. Understanding these consumer behaviors along with how technology is evolving in mobile is key to making sure that you are doing something because it adds value to your business and not just because everyone else is doing it.
Q. You’ve led the research and strategy for a number of global digital product initiatives both within organizations like Microsoft and Nokia, and for clients like the NBA, BC Hydro, and Western Union. In your experience, what is the role of UX in ensuring the right stakeholders are at the table, and the right questions are asked to influence the success of the product?
Ryan: The question that tends to get lost a lot of the time is why? Ask a key stakeholder what to do, especially an executive stakeholder, and there is no doubt you will get an answer. The same thing goes for asking how something should be done. Ask someone why we should do something however, and that is when you can run into moments of silence and roundabout explanations. It is understanding the “why” of an initiative that is core to the role of UX and what ensures we take the right steps in developing a strategy and involve the right people along the way.
Q. Clearly digital platforms and products are becoming infinitely more complex, with more web services, more devices, more operating systems, and more screen sizes to plan for. Given the idea of MVP, how do you apply this same thinking to the testing process?
Ryan: Our philosophy has always been show, don’t tell. You can only go so far planning something on paper before you have to get your hands dirty and start making the thing. I work with a great creative and development team here at Engine Digital, and along with the UX team, we aim to move from concept to prototype to user feedback as quickly as possible. You are only successful if what you are creating solves a problem for someone more easily than what they were doing before, and you only know this if you are able to act on user feedback through quick and efficient iterations.
Q. What new technology are you fixated with and why?
Ryan: While wearables and virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift and Sony’s new PS4 headset get most of the media attention these days, I’m actually most interested with what is happening in mobile payments. It is the ideal user experience problem, a complex and fractured space with many moving parts and the potential to have a huge impact around the world if it’s done right. I think once retailers get over the risk aversion associated with changing something that’s been done the same way for so long, paying for an item, we will start to see entirely new behaviors and opportunities develop while integrating with other new technologies such as beacons.
Q. What defines the right talent for your team?
Ryan: Finding the right UX talent is growing more and more difficult. I am fortunate to be working with an exceptional team of UX strategists, and for me it comes down to a couple of specific traits. The first is the ability to not only formulate a perspective, but believe in it and defend it. I’m not talking about being stubborn, I’m talking about looking at a problem from the angles of business, technology and user and being confident in the solution that is being proposed. Another trait that I look for is the ability to communicate an idea effectively. Working in the creative industry, being able to communicate an idea visually is obviously an important skill, but I’m finding more and more that this extends to working with executives when we talk to them about their business models and product ecosystems as much as it does when we are sketching out wireframes and concepts on the walls at the agency with the rest of the design and development team.