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Aesthetics and empathy are two key elements of good UX design

Vancouver, Aug 17th, 2017

Canadian agency Idea Rebel (IR) is approaching its 10th anniversary, and since its inception in 2008, it has had clear views about its core values and direction. IR is an environmentally sustainable company wiht a positive attitude that goes beyond UX developing and copy writing, taking time to admire nature, suf, taste good food and watch movies.

IR was co-founded by Jamie Garratt, Aimee Croteau and Neil Hayes. The three met while working at digital marketing agency Blast Radius and, when this one was bought by WPP Group plc, the saw the opportunity and took it, and they never looked back.

Today the company has offices in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal and Santa Monica. It specialises in anything with pixels, a display and an interaction – from website design, eCommerce and app development to SEO, Social, VR and experiential campaigns. IR has been the agency of choice for brands like Converse, Keurig, Arc’teryx, WestJet and BMW. From time to time it tackles branding and traditional media projects but its focus is mainly digital.

We talked to Andrew Mowbray, IR Creative Director, who joined the IR team in 2016. He started his career under the tutelage of John Gagné, then Creative Director at Proximity Canada.

“I cashed in a few favours and got to sit down with John. As luck would have it, this was just after the previous Jr. Designer had quit. John came pretty close to scaring me off with the horror stories of what they put that poor soul through, but it was this role that forced me to learn quickly in the company of some of the best in the industry. It also gifted me the opportunity to get a lot of good work under my belt pretty quickly. That was a decade ago.”

At work, Andrew powers on pushing the boundaries of the creative team. However, on his free time, he likes to travel, getting away from the screen to de-stress, while experiencing ‘something foreign and new.’

“Traveling is It’s always inspiring,” he says, “and it helps to contribute to my creative mindset. Even if it’s just a weekend road trip, it’s amazing what’s outside your work-home bubble. When I stay locally, I try to balance out my interests in movies (another great source of inspiration), Toronto restaurants and beer (yet another great source of inspiration) with keeping active – lots of bike rides and yoga.”

What does it take to be a Rebel?

‘Rebel’ is a pretty subjective term but in context to our shop, it means having conviction behind your ideas and the courage to execute them. We’re an eclectic group. Everyone on our team understands the value of self-management and ownership – no one’s here to hold your hand.

But there’s also the awareness that we’re a team, working in a silo-free environment to achieve great things – so expect answers to your questions, and help when you ask for it.

We’re small enough that the entrepreneurial attitude runs pretty deep but ultimately, it’s the level of emotional and functional intelligence that really makes someone a good fit for Idea Rebel.

What do you rebel against?

The creative team just had a lengthy discussion about this, in relation to some art we’re installing in our new Toronto space.

At IR, “rebel” isn’t defined by defiance or an anti-establishment attitude. It’s about nonconformity and fighting for what’s right. It’s a term that unites us in challenging the status quo and pushing our ideas (and the technology that supports them) to new levels.

It’s a philosophy that applies not only to the non-traditional, award winning stuff we do but also to the seemingly banal elements of a project – like convincing a client to change their approach to the UX of their cart experience.

In your opinion, what ingredients are key to create a successful UX design?

I believe that there are three key parts to UX success: User Understanding, Aesthetics & Empathy, and Testing.

User Understanding

It’s amazing how often designers and developers work in a bubble away from end consumers. You can’t create anything that’s tailored to your users if have no idea who they are.

Every project should start with data on the wins/losses of an existing product, the analytics of abandoned experiences and existing user flows. Then, getting to know who your users are – their goals and frustrations – and understanding as much about the purpose and context of their experience as possible.

Aesthetics & Empathy

Google and Apple have raised the bar for the level of design and polish that users (and clients) expect. While we can start with research, wireframes and user flows, good UX has to involve a deep understanding of how aesthetics impact experience – and from my experience, users abandon a poorly designed experience faster than one that’s aesthetically pleasing. It’s common sense!

Poor visual design is an eyesore that adds to user frustration. I like to group this idea with Empathy too, since so much of good design should translate into a happy experience for the user – one that’s easy and human. This means striving to reduce cognitive load and creating experiences that are approachable, intuitive and considerate – providing human-like interactions over cold, sterile or technical ones.


Testing doesn’t have to mean one-way mirrors and test subject eye-tracking. For IR, it’s often getting a quick, clickable prototype or series of sketches to test-drive on co-workers, friends, family, even clients!

Anyone who thinks a little differently from the team closest to the project can potentially provide invaluable feedback.

How do you work out your design, taking into account your target audience or users?

The process at IR for creating UX designs follows the three steps that I mentioned before. We perform research and discovery to understand our users, clients and competitors, making notes of key challenges/opportunities that might be solved in design, as well as the particular client’s business objectives and KPIs.

Next, we do rough personas and user flows where empathy comes into play. Personas get a bad wrap as nothing more than agency self-talk – which, while somewhat true, doesn’t diminish their value as a means of viewing alternative perspectives.

Then, we move into whiteboard sketches and wireframes – and the first cues of aesthetics appear. Quick wire sketches let us stress test ideas and make sure we’re creating flows and features that will work for our users. As things come together in sketches, we work on information architecture, content matrixes, feature lists and iterative mini-prototypes to validate and expand on our ideas.

Then comes the most exciting part of the process for me – moving from the initial wireframes and user flows into more polished designs high-fidelity wires or early designs, bringing it all to life in full colour and really getting a feel for how the end result will look and function. We have some amazingly talented designers and art directors with a great understanding of UI, UX and development. They’re an invaluable asset to the UX process.

Which are the most important web tools that you use?

Primarily, our UX team works with Sketch, Craft and Invision, although we’re not very silo’ed, so Photoshop invariably gets thrown in the mix too. Invision is great for in-office and on-the-street user testing.

When project timelines permit, we also use to collect as much actual user data as possible – anything that will help the design process early rather than relying on post-launch optimisations.

Can you tell us about a project you worked on that was especially successful?

Our most successful project in recent memory was also one of our most challenging Working with Keurig, one of North America’s biggest coffee brands, we performed a UX overhaul of their Canadian digital property focusing on enhancement within a fully responsive design. That included improved user experience flows, new user-centric content and overall optimisation – all on an insanely tight timeline to deliver before their biggest sales season. experienced a 70% increase in traffic, with commercial transactions growing 60% but the biggest impact that the Keurig website conversion rate experienced was on mobile. On desktop and tablet, conversion rates increased a healthy 30% and 17% respectively but mobile conversion rates increased over 250%.

Essentially, mobile has become the primary platform for the initial browsing experience. The UX improvements we made through the quick refresh delivered incredible, tangible results for our client.

How do you imagine the UX concept to work in the future?

Recently, I’ve been exploring Zero UI and the idea of designing experiences for natural language and connectivity in a potentially screen-less way. As more connected devices and digital assistants come to market, UX strategy is going to move to accommodate that in new and exciting ways.

Name a challenge your team is currently facing

With the recent acquisition of new clients, our biggest challenge (one we’re lucky to have) is scaling up as a company. With corporate growth come new challenges in managing how our staff, processes and workflows grow, too.

Right now, Idea Rebel is working through the growing pains, realigning our leadership team to be able to coach the rest of the rebels into a very exciting time.

What piece of advice would you give a recent grad looking to work in digital marketing?

Check your attitude. Everyone starts at the bottom and you’ve got to do a lot of boring, frustrating work before getting that nugget that you can really succeed with. I had an ACD when I was starting out he said “you get two portfolio projects a year, at most, the rest keep the lights on.”

To be clear, I don’t want to perpetuate that stereotype of millennials and younger demographics being entitled, since this isn’t endemic to any particular age group –but I can’t stress enough how important it is to approach a career in this industry with humility, respect and a willingness to learn from whatever you’re thrown. That goes for most industries, in fact.

Are there online publications, professionals, industry leaders you follow?

Daily I’m checking out InVision Blog (which is a godsend), and Muzli turns every new tab in Chrome into a quick moment of inspiration and UX learning. I also follow Wired and Fast Company on most social networks to get quick tid-bits of tech news. Monthly, I read digital publications of Computer Arts and Esquire – to stay artistic and fashionable!

For artistic inspiration, I’m really into PichiAvo these days (Pichi & Avo are an amazing Spanish based artist duo creating some fantastic graffiti). They’re currently creating a lot of stuff that’s a really interesting fusion of classic art and contemporary urban art.

In terms of industry folks – art, design and UX – I’ll just name drop some people who pop up in my feeds: Ben Johnston, Nick Kumbari, AgenceMe, Sabrina Smelko, Jennet Liaw, Bethany Heck, Thomas Le Corre and of course Tobias van Schneider.

Please list a few of your favourite digital brands

There’s the clichés that I love: Google, Apple, Nike. You can’t really talk about success or inspiration in the digital space without mentioning them. Again, Invision deserve a nod for being well designed, constantly innovating and providing a great product and knowledgebase to their users and followers. Lastly, I’d say Dropbox is a great inspiration. It’s a wonderful service I use daily that has amazing UX, UI and even marketing and support collateral.

Thanks Andrew!

By Geny Caloisi.

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