Why strategic planning works

Joe Benesh is a senior architect with Shive-Hattery and president and CEO of the Ingenuity Company, a strategic planning, diagramming, framework development and design thinking consulting firm.

In Dan Ariely's book "Predictably Irrational," there is a chapter called “Why a 50-cent aspirin can do what a penny aspirin can’t.” If you haven’t read this book, you should. It calls into question a lot of the decisions we make and the root causes behind why we make them.

In many respects, planning is about developing a set of possible solutions. It isn’t our job to implement these solutions, but rather to present clients with frameworks for success and increases in capacity.

So, what of the 50-cent aspirin? The reason I began this post with that is because sometimes clients search for the 50-cent solution when the penny solution will do.

But isn’t the 50-cent solution always going to be better? The answer is no. I’m not talking about the actual price of the strategic planning services or even the cost of the implementation of the solution – what I am referring to lies in the amount of complexity in the solution framework presented as a result of the planning process. Irrationality-of-rationalism

It is easy to get caught up in a solution that seems to have many bells and whistles. A 50-cent solution. But is that what you need? Does it solve the core problem, make the improvement(s), or build capacity in a way that meets the baseline expectations? Or is it more bells and whistles than a framework for solutions? Activities and actions solving fringe issues rather than aimed at the core or critical?

Strategic planning works because it offers an opportunity for organizations to build a long-term vision for what they wish to accomplish. If this long-term vision is overwrought with complexity, or constructed around a framework that is not built on solid user data or analytics, then what appears to be a well-developed plan will disintegrate during the implementation phase.

We have a tendency to naturally assume that if something is more complex or more expensive, then it must be better. I’ve found that almost universally the opposite is true.

When a plan is too complex, it will seem too hard for stakeholders to get traction on any single area, which may cause a cascading effect on the entire plan, causing it to fail. During the planning phase, this complexity may have felt good by virtue of sheer volume of information – safety in numbers of a sort. But if you move into the tactical portion of the planning phase without properly winnowing, filtering and/or phasing this earlier raw data, the volume of information will work against successful implementation.

Successful strategic planning balances complexity with relativism and practicality. Strategic planning works because it allows these three ingredients to mix, based on the needs of the individual or organization. When this mix is optimized, the penny solution will feel like a 50-cent solution, because you will find success in implementation. If your headache only needs a penny aspirin, why waste the other 49 cents?

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Usability and your website

Alex Karei, marketing director for Webspec Design, blogs about web strategy.

Have you ever thought about the usability of your website? Maybe the last time you launched a new website for your company, you sat down with members of your team and had them click through a few pages, making sure they understood how to use the site prior to launch. You probably caught a few dead links, and you might have thrown some feedback to your web design company, but you probably didn’t make any drastic changes at that point.

Why not? Probably because drastic edits would have meant hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars' worth of development adjustments. That’s a hard pill to swallow when you’ve already invested a good chunk of change into the site to begin with.

Usability is defined by the Nielsen Norman Group as a quality attribute that assesses how easy user interfaces are to use. Nielsen Norman Group also says that usability is defined by five quality components. I’m rather fond of how they break it down.

Five quality components of usability

  • Learnability: How easy is it for users to accomplish basic tasks the first time they encounter the design?
  • Efficiency: Once users have learned the design, how quickly can they perform tasks?
  • Memorability: When users return to the design after a period of not using it, how easily can they re-establish proficiency?
  • Errors: How many errors do users make, how severe are these errors, and how easily can they recover from the errors?
  • Satisfaction: How pleasant is it to use the design?

If you’ve gone through the feedback process I mentioned earlier, you’re likely only getting observations on the “satisfaction” side of the scale. Errors pointed out are probably only regarding content, and learnability is only evaluated from the instructions given (which are not always the strongest).

A simple way to introduce usability testing

Although I’d love to say all of our clients take part in true usability testing, it simply isn’t true. Why? Because budgets are limited, and given the choice between a key feature or some hours spent on that testing, the feature will win almost every time.

Naturally, staff at a web design firm are thinking in terms of usability as they design the website, but that doesn't mean that it's a done deal. True usability is about getting your website in front of the right audience, and that's not always the individuals employed at that firm. 

Thank being said, an easy way to implement usability testing is to start in the design phase. Most web design contracts will allow one or two rounds of edits from the initial, proposed website design that they will ask you to review and sign off on. It can be easy to see that design, be drawn to the fun colors or bright photographs, and miss the opportunity to test site usability. But with this type of review, you’re only addressing the “satisfaction” the design presents.

How to use a design to test usability

  1. Source different people. It’s important that you present the design to people who aren’t overly familiar with your product, but would fall into one or more of your target audiences.
  2. Assign a task. Think about what you’d want someone in that audience to accomplish with your website, and ask them to do it.
  3. See how long it takes them to respond. Is it easy for them to make a decision about where to “click” on that home page? If not, you might have an issue.
  4. Ask for feedback. If your results weren’t positive, take the opportunity to ask the individual what they were really looking for, or why they were confused. Make edits with your team, designer or developer accordingly.

Obviously this works better if you’ve got a few designs that you can present a tester with, to help them understand page-to-page flow. But you can still get a good impression of how your home page is working with this simple test. If it doesn’t work on paper, putting code behind it won’t magically fix problems that are present.

Bonus: If you have glaring issues, fixing them in design is a lot less expensive than if you get through to development.

Extra bonus: If you’ve got two rounds of design revisions, you can take that new design back to the same tester and follow up with questions that help ensure there’s been improvement. To some extent, you can even look to test memorability and efficiency.

Not everyone has time to thoroughly test usability, but that doesn’t mean you have to ignore it completely.

How are you testing your website’s usability?


Alex-Karei_YPFinalist2016Alex is the marketing & communications director for Webspec Design, a website design and development and digital marketing agency in Urbandale. Connect with her via:

Email: alex@webspecdesign.com

Twitter: www.twitter.com/alex_karei

Instagram: www.instagram.com/alex_karei

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/alexandriakarei

Pressure really blows


Dr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of "Imagine" and "Beware the Purple People Eaters." His upcoming book, "A Quarter-Million Steps," will be available early next year.

I recently saw the movie "Deepwater Horizon." Since the movie is based on actual events, I’m not spoiling anything by describing how it chronicles the 2010 oil well explosion in the Gulf of Mexico that caused the largest oil spill ever in U.S. waters. What struck me the most was how I could actually feel the gradual, yet massive buildup of pressure ultimately released from the ocean floor more than two and a half miles below the surface — pressure that literally blew apart the entire structure.

It got me thinking about how pressure can also affect our everyday lives. Except in a few scientific and engineering contexts, intense pressure is seldom a good thing. However, people often think they actually perform better under pressure, despite the research showing just the opposite: No one performs better under pressure.

“The idea that people perform better under pressure is a myth,” says psychologist Dr. Tim Pychyl, director of the Procrastination Research Group and author of "Solving the Procrastination Puzzle." To his knowledge, there is not one study that supports the claim that people perform better under pressure. The resulting stress makes it harder for your brain to function, basically overloading it.1

Often, this overload and the subsequent pressure created by it come from either trying to do too many things at once (multitasking) or from putting something off because we have too many things to do (procrastinating). And as with most things, an overload tends to burn out what’s being overloaded.

Our brains are complex organs. The average human brain uses the equivalent of 20 watts of power (enough to power a light bulb), and although the brain only makes up a mere 2 percent of our total body weight, it consumes more than 20 percent of our daily caloric intake — more than any other organ in the human body.2

Research has shown that our mental energy related to decision-making is finite, and once depleted, the quality of our thinking begins to dramatically suffer. As average people, we tend to spend a large percentage of our mental energy on relatively meaningless stuff that really doesn’t have any real impact on our lives, good or bad, like streaming through countless posts on Facebook and watching television. Once our brain has used its energy, we tend to miss the relevant stuff and other important details necessary to be more successful, creative thinkers within the limited time we are given.3

Studies of very efficient people show they rid themselves of distractions and the unnecessary, miscellaneous choices that deplete mental energy. They frequently eat and meet at the same places; they turn off their smartphone app notifications and look at their apps when they’re ready to see them; they stop dwelling on things that occurred in the past and don’t obsess on things that might happen since it’s impossible to actually do things in the past or future; they frequently wear the same clothes (think Steve Jobs); and they remove the clutter that surrounds them.4 This “freed-up” energy allows them to focus on what’s truly important.

Being at our creative best requires gas in the mental tank, gas that will only be available if we aren’t going full throttle every day. Also, as with any machine, the brain, or even an oil well, going full throttle for too long creates intense pressure that will be released, one way or another.

©2016 Anthony D. Paustian

PaustianHeadFor more information about Dr. Anthony Paustian, provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines, please visit his website at www.adpaustian.com 

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