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Key question on UX design: What can you strip away?

New York, August 22nd, 2017

Sanborn is a 32-person interactive agency with offices in New York and Los Angeles. Sanborn produces digital campaigns and products focusing on web, mobile, video, content and experiential. Agility and innovation guide its work.

Since it started in 2004, Sanborn has been an all-digital agency working with some of the leading brands in the world, such as AEG, Estee Lauder, The New York Times and Wired magazine, to name but a few.

We talked with Edith Levin, Sanborn’s Creative Director about UX and the best way to satisfy big demanding clients. She started at the agency in 2012 as an Interaction Designer and worked her way up to the top.

Edith is a Yoga and Pilates practitioner, dog owner, Kombucha drinker and motorcycle rider, who was born into a very artistic family.

Both of my parents are artists, and I was taking classical drawing & painting classes since I was little,” says Edith and adds, “I went to Pratt Institute for Graphic Design, thinking I would be designing band t-shirts and posters. I took a few Flash classes my senior year and fell in love with interactive. I then landed an internship at the in-house digital department of Atlantic Records, which then turned into a full time position creating digital experiences for recording artists. I was very fortunate in that position to have had a few key mentors.

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

The key ingredient is what probably anyone else will tell you – simplicity. I could plug a handful of quotes here in favour of keeping things simple, but I think it’s fairly evident that if you’re making it complicated for your user to get from point A to point B, they will eject themselves from your experience far quicker than you can believe they would. When approaching every part of your user flow, always think about the single simplest path forward, and then simplify it once more. Always ask yourself – what can I strip away?

What methodologies from the ones you use you use most often and which ones give you a greater insight?

We move really quickly at Sanborn, it’s what sets us aside from our competition. A lot of time we don’t have the benefit of doing the sort of usability testing that is performed at big corporation. We love to be scrappy, and do adhoc testing. To that end – rapid prototyping is our prime route, which we find to be extremely enlightening. We prototype often and iterate quickly. This means getting something clickable at the earliest stages, often as preliminary wireframes in InVision, and getting our peers and trusty cohorts to provide us with their feedback.

Can you give us some examples of your experience dealing with usability studies, eye-tracking study, field study, or focus groups?

One of the most memorable examples of focus groups for us has been for an interactive experience we created for young girls (ages 6 – 12) for the Girl Scouts, called ‘Be the Video Game Developer’. The experience was all about teaching (and empowering) young girls to code and make their own mini video game that they could then share with their friends. Throughout the process, we would gather young girls in the age group and watched them navigate the experience and take those learnings to then iterate and enhance. This step was crucial for us in getting to an end product that was user friendly for that very specific demographic. Needless to say – this was also very entertaining and rewarding for all of us!

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

The subscription video on demand platform Alpha, which we created for Legendary Entertainment, is one of the more recent products that everyone has felt really proud of. At the time that Legendary approached us with this concept over a year ago, we had already worked with them on their main .com, and had the benefit of having learned a lot about their audience. The goal was to provide this dedicated audience with even more exclusive and engaging content. Their two primary audience bases were from Nerdist and Geek & Sundry, which had their own demographics and behaviours. We were able to bring those users under one roof and create an experience that is engaging, interactive, social and unique. And then we did it all over again with a proprietary iPhone app.

Being that this was an established and dedicated audience, it was very important for us that we get feedback from the users and provide them with the kind of experience that was befitting to their expectations. Our metrics indicate that we have done them proud.

Suppose that a client is upset with a particular element of the design that you have done. They believe that you have not created what they asked for. How would you handle this?

In an agency setting, when you are dealing with many different clients at any given moment, a client objecting to some part of the design is not exactly rare. My first course of action is always to listen, and digest exactly what they are saying without any ego or judgement.

My next step is always to work with them to take one step back and establish what problem we are trying to solve for and what our ultimate collective goal is. I find that breaking the issue down to it’s absolute core, getting away from things like colour preference and the desire to make the logo bigger, resets the conversation. With the base problem/goal set – you can have a discussion about the various options for moving forward and iterating.

From my experience, when these conflicts occur, 9 times out of 10 we come out of it with something even better than what was originally presented. Collaboration with our clients is paramount to us.

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

I think that UX is going to be largely dictated by emerging technologies. The devices we are using are getting more intelligent and are more catered to personalizing your experience.

It’s hard to say how far this will take us, but I can see how more and more your behaviour on the web will be translating to how the information is being served up. I can see that technological advancement making for more organic and seamless experiences.

My only hope is that I’m long gone by the time we start creeping into that Black Mirror territory.

Name a challenge your team is currently facing

In our remote work structure, I always struggle with finding the best and most seamless ways for us to collaborate internally as a design team. When you don’t have the advantage of turning our screen to your fellow designer for feedback, you have to find creative ways of filling that void. We have a handful of great processes in place to keep us sharing our work, and getting feedback from our peers, but we could always be doing better.

What’s the story behind the agency’s name, Sanborn?

The story behind Sanborn has to do with repetitions of names. Two of the three founding partners share the last name, Sanborn. And two partners share the same first name Chris/Cris. So you can just ask for C(h)ris or Sanborn and someone will answer.

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

If we’re talking about someone going into the creative field, I would encourage them to experience all the various options, sooner rather than later. Work in-house at a large corporation, then work for a small agency, and simultaneously take on freelance work. Knowing all your options is so important when you get started, you may be surprised by where your preferences lie (I was). And of course work your tail off, and pay your dues.

Get your hands on everything. Learn the basics of what those around you do, it will make you a better partner and launch you past simply being a ‘creative’.

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

InVision, Adobe, Product Hunt, Creative Mornings, Huge, Jessica Hische, Swiss Miss, The Dieline

Please list a few of your favourite digital brands:

Slack, Evernote, Sketch, InVision, Simple Bank, Venmo

Thanks Edith!

By Geny Caloisi.

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