MSTQ Founder Yazin Akkawi on the Kula Ring Podcast

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MSTQ

on

December 18, 2019

The Kula Ring podcast is co-hosted by Kula Partners principals, Carman Pirie and Jeff W. White, both of whom are frequently sought after for their digitally-focused B2B expertise. They regularly share their insights with audiences including conferences like B2B Online and HubSpot’s INBOUND, the Gardner Manufacturing Marketer blog, and other podcasts focused on B2B marketing and technology.

MSTQ founder and principal product designer Yazin Akkawi discusses why he has moved away from demographics and toward a five-factor OCEAN model to build more accurate and useful buyer personas, and how user-centric design can enhance the entire customer journey.

Visit the Kula Ring Podcast to listen or tune in on Spotify.

Full Transcript:

Announcer: You’re listening to The Kula Ring, a podcast made for manufacturing marketers. Here are Carman Pirie and Jeff White.

Jeff White: Welcome to The Kula Ring, a podcast for manufacturing marketers, brought to you by Kula Partners, an agency made for manufacturers. My name is Jeff White, and I’m the co-founder of Kula Partners. Joining me today is Carman Pirie. Carman, how are you doing today, sir?

Carman Pirie: I am doing well, sir. And you?

Jeff White: I’m doing great. Yeah. No, it’s-

Carman Pirie: Nice. Okay. I think today’s show is… I hesitate to say this to our listeners, because maybe they’ll all stop listening, but I think it’s gonna be kind of a good episode for marketing geeks, you know? Like the kind of people that think maybe a little too hard about this stuff sometimes, then it might be just about right.

Jeff White: Yeah. Yeah. For sure. I know I’ve been nerding out about it just to get to speak about user interface, and UX, and things like that on the podcast, for sure.

Carman Pirie: Yeah, so folks, what we’re hoping to chat about today is really, I guess it kind of all starts with the notion of as marketers, who do we create, who are we creating for? And today’s guest brings a kind of an interesting insight from the… based upon the work that he does, I think just challenges how we think about who we’re marketing to, who we’re building for.

Jeff White: Absolutely.

Carman Pirie: So, why don’t you introduce our guest?

Jeff White: Absolutely, so joining us today is Yazin Akkawi of MSTQ, and Yazin is the founder and principal product designer there, and we first met at the MAPI ManufacturED Summit, and got to talking about some of the things that he was doing, and he spoke there, and found it really interesting. Anyway, welcome to The Kula Ring, Yazin.

Yazin Akkawi: Thanks for having me guys.

Carman Pirie: Yazin, it’s a pleasure to be chatting, and yeah, I’m excited to kick this around a little bit, see where we get. So, let’s just start by understanding a bit more about the work that you do at MSTQ, the types of clients that you work with, and kind of the area of focus.

Yazin Akkawi: Yeah, so MSTQ is a product strategy and design firm, and the metaphor that I always like to start with is we are the architects for software. So, when you think about how you erect a skyscraper, you have essentially… I’m oversimplifying it, but there are three phases. There’s the urban planners that look at a property and try to evaluate the best use of it, and evaluate the surrounding area, and then there’s the architects that choose the materials, craft the façade, create the spatial composition within it, and it’s obviously much more complex than that, but they essentially hand off blueprints to the general contractors. Those are the guys that hit hammer to nail.

So, the way that translates into the software world is, for MSTQ at least, we sort of handle the urban planning and architecture phases, or in other words that are more commonly used, the research and strategy, or the discovery phases, and then the user experience, user interface phases, and arriving at a product design in which the end of the scope there is to hand off the documentation for engineering teams to actually build it. So, my role within it is the principal, so I spearhead all the projects and a lot of the work that goes into it.

The types of clients that we work with are all over the place. We’ve worked with manufacturing companies, startups, well-funded startups, concept-stage startups, all the way to Fortune 10s, and a few or a handful of companies in the Fortune 500s, as well. So, it’s pretty dynamic, the way that we engage with anyone who’s building software.

Carman Pirie: I really like that, the notion of you’re working with manufacturers to create a digital product, and it really changes, or I found in our initial conversation that you were in some ways challenging oftentimes manufacturing marketers that you’re working with in that capacity, to kind of think about who they’re building for a little differently. And I think that started, really, with the notion of challenging buyer personas a little bit, and maybe adding to them a bit more and making them more useful. Can you take us through that a little bit, and what kind of problems that you see with buyer personas as they’re traditionally defined, and how you try to augment?

Yazin Akkawi: Yeah, for sure. I think the best way to lead into that is just a general philosophy that I have, that I think is widely accepted, that great design always starts with the person that you’re designing for. That any time you’re making something, and it doesn’t even have to be a product. It can be anything. An advertisement, a physical product, a digital product, a website, a brochure, business cards, whatever the case may be. You always have to have the person who’s receiving it or interacting with it in mind. And so, I think it’s pretty safe to say that every activity should at least take into consideration the person who’s going to be using it.

For the most part with software specifically, the people who have access, or the level of scale that you’re designing for is really broad, and so it gets pretty complicated when you start to think about, “All right, well who exactly am I designing this for?” And it could be a wide range of people. If you think about Facebook, for instance, Facebook has billions of users, and how do you summarize or segment the people that are going to be using it, and take them all into consideration? And the way to think about that, I think, is to get into the universal elements when you’re segmenting out different people in the audience.

And I’ll give a quick example in a second here, but as you’re segmenting the audience, there’s a lot of ways that you can summarize that. The most common way that people create artifacts as a means of representing the person or the people that they’re making something for is through demographics personas, and demographic persona is something like… Let’s see. Let me make this up. Emma, who’s a female, lives in Chicago, she’s 25 years old, single, X amount of income. Or it’s like a female who lives in Scottsdale, 45 years old, high income, this is her job, these are the brands that she buys from. A lot of these, a lot of the data here isn’t really actionable from design. Or some people might find it actionable, actually, but what I’ve found, generally speaking, even at the MAPI conference, I sort of paused in the presentation to ask this question, which is, “Okay, first of all, how many people have used a demographic persona?” 90% of the room raised their hands. And the second question was, “Of the people who have actually seen or heard of it, how many people use it on a daily basis or frequently enough?” And there was maybe three hands that went up, which I think is evidence that making demographic personas is something that people do just sort of going through the motions.

And it’s something that I’ve struggled with, too. You know, as somebody who’s worked with companies as a designer, brands as a designer, and part of the value that I tried to add in creating these artifacts that represent the end user. There’s something that’s… it’s a difficult conversation to have with the client when you’re just creating something by going through the motions, and I’m sure you guys have probably experienced this at some point, too, where you’re trying to avoid things just as activities that aren’t necessarily delivering value to your clients, right?

Carman Pirie: Yeah, and I find that the trouble, too, with just… it makes them even worse, is that inevitably, the demographic becomes so broad even-

Jeff White: As to be meaningless.

Carman Pirie: You know, like to try to say that people 25 to 44 somehow broadly carry any kind of characteristic is quite a stretch, so-

Jeff White: Or the alternative, where we break them down so finely that there are so many different personas, that you really can’t be designing something for that number of people that you all think are completely different.  

Carman Pirie: Yeah, something that appears to have a level of false precision to it in some way.

Jeff White: Yeah. Yeah.

Yazin Akkawi: Yeah, exactly, and even whether it’s finely broken down or extremely broad, the most important reason that I’ve concluded as to why they’re so un-useful, for me specifically and for most people that I talk to, because it doesn’t explain why somebody does something. Why somebody buys your product, why somebody likes it, or why somebody would engage or interact with say an advertisement or something. It’s not because… Your customers, as mostly Caucasian women in rural areas, aren’t buying your product because they’re Caucasian women in rural areas. There’s something deeper about that. And so, what I’ve found is taking that even deeper, going into personality types, because I’ve been experimenting with different ways of presenting this information, but personality types I’ve found have been the most actionable for a lot of reasons.

Carman Pirie: All right, so let’s break that down a little bit further because you use a specific model in terms of assessing personality types. I want to understand how you use that in your work, and its… kind of the practical application of it, kind of what the output of that is.

Yazin Akkawi: Of the personality-based?

Carman Pirie: Yeah, like what’s the… How do we do it? What does that look like? And then what’s kind of the design outcome? What are some of the examples of how that’s driven how you design or how you think?

Yazin Akkawi: Yeah. Those are really important, so I think the most useful framework that I’ve used is the OCEAN model, the five-factor model for summarizing someone’s personality. And if you’re not familiar with the OCEAN model, there’s five personality traits that essentially summarize someone’s personality in psychographics. Again, just using only five personality traits. Their openness, do they enjoy new experiences? Conscientiousness, do they prefer plans and order? Extroversion, do they like spending time with others? Agreeableness, do they put other peoples’ needs before their own? And neuroticism, do they tend to worry a lot?

And this is actually a pretty cutting-edge model in social psychology because they’re… It’s being used I think pretty significantly… pretty frequently to do personality-based research, and for a designer, it’s incredibly valuable, because let’s say we’re making… I keep coming back to an advertisement, because communication design is I think the most widely-understood example. But if you’re advertising to somebody who’s low in openness, meaning they don’t enjoy new experiences, and high in agreeableness, meaning they tend to be agreeable and put other people’s needs and wants before their own, then there’s different ways of communicating to that person, to somebody who worries a lot and is very goal-driven, who’s high in conscientiousness. And the example of that would be to the first person, who’s low in openness and high in agreeableness, you’d want to focus on bolstering community, and traditions, and really communicate to them by identifying with the community that they identify with, and use nostalgia to deliver messages. Versus somebody who worries a lot, there’s… Fear is a big part of that equation. Either add value by alleviating the fear, or communicate the value by exposing the threats that they might be worried about.

And then you have to be extremely rational with how you talk to them in the tone, in the copy of the content that you’re delivering to them. Does that make sense?

Carman Pirie: Absolutely. So, when you’re working with clients, do you have… Do you essentially get a kind of a random sampling of customers, or people who are going to be using the product that you’re designing? And essentially survey them, to find out kind of where your user group falls from a personality-type perspective? Or is it more qualitative than that, shall we say?

Yazin Akkawi: Yeah, so there’s two ways that I tend to go about this. The first is one that I’ve never actually done, which is to survey customers and try to create these personality-based profiles based on a set of questions. So, there’s so many ways you can arrive at somebody’s OCEAN or five-factor composition, and one of the ways you can do it is just through a quick ten-question survey. Which seems simple enough, right? You can just send this out to a random sample of customers that you have who are willing to participate in any research studies that you’re doing. The problem is when you’re sending these surveys, they’re questions like, “I tend to sympathize with people.” Sometimes one of the questions can be, “I really love myself” or “I really hate myself.” You have to kind of rate that on a scale of one to seven or one to ten, and they can be really personal, which is kind of weird and off-putting for somebody who’s trying to participate in some consumer survey.

So, I tend to avoid doing that directly, and I think a lot of my reservations in gathering that data, of sending out those surveys, is there’s so many ethical implications of what you can do with that type of data. I think Cambridge Analytica… Are you guys familiar with Cambridge Analytica and the scandal during the presidential election?

Carman Pirie: Of course.

Jeff White: Yeah.

Yazin Akkawi: Yeah, so they… It was just such a good example of how they were able to use these personality profiles to exploit vulnerable people in the masses, and exploit people’s areas of weakness to manipulate them. And that’s the last thing that I want to do because I know… Well, you know, on an aside, design is never neutral. You’re always manipulating somebody in some way within the manner in which you’re presenting information. But there are instances where I don’t know if I’m manipulating for good or for bad, and so I tend to avoid going into those vulnerable ethical areas in capturing hard, quantitative data on anyone’s personality-based profile.

So, before I go into the second way that I go about gathering the data, I want to give you guys a chance to react to that, because I know that we can unpack that in so many ways.

Carman Pirie: Well, look, I can understand the ethical concerns. I guess on the flip side, there’s just the practicality of getting the information, like you say. In a business-to-business context, for instance, asking a B2B buyer the questions that you would ask for a personality assessment can sometimes just seem really weird. And of course marketing-

Jeff White: It’s a little over the top. Yeah.

Carman Pirie: Yeah, yeah. We’ve, doing brand archetype work, have found asking questions to help people understand, or perhaps begin to put their brand into the view of an archetype, or through the lens of an archetype, has a similar challenge from a surveying perspective. Let’s put it that way. So, that’s something I very much identified with.

Yazin Akkawi: Yeah. It can be pretty weird. I mean, even asking regular consumer survey questions, sometimes people are not very receptive to. But, so because of that, you know, a natural part of product design research is getting into the field, and conducting interviews or ethnographies, and ethnographies are pretty weird, because you’re sort of a fly on the wall, while somebody… Somebody knows that you’re watching them and is trying to pretend like you’re not.

But through that process, you’re able to sort of draw conclusions and make guesses about how people would relate from a personality perspective, and while it’s not completely accurate, the idea is that you can… If you’re interviewing 10 or 15 people, just that implicit data that you’ve gathered, or at least for me, the implicit data is enough to sort of draw broad, sweeping conclusions, without necessarily identifying anyone’s personality type quantitatively. So, that’s the number one way, the primary way that I go about sort of creating these profiles, because it’s how, qualitatively, when you’re creating a persona, I think that’s most common in ways of gathering it, aside from surveys that you can send out to hundreds or even thousands of people.

But I will say that regardless of how this data is gathered, a psychographic persona does so many things, even if it doesn’t… there’s no data that’s being quantitatively or qualitatively gathered. Because A, just having a persona, because I know a lot of my clients, for instance, are, as I’m sure most of yours are, somewhat reluctant to spend a considerable amount of time not getting into the design work or the craft work. Does that happen for you guys as often as it does for me?

Carman Pirie: I think most agency folks would say that they experience that, of course. People want to spend on the doing, not so much on the-

Jeff White: Thinking. The strategy.

Carman Pirie: Yeah. Yeah. People would have limited appetite for that by times.

Jeff White: Yep.

Yazin Akkawi: Yeah, so there’s always some budgetary constraint, which is a limitation on how you’re able to gather that data. But you inevitably can’t make anything unless you have some decision framework, some ability to have a basis, a persona that has some basis for a representation of the end user, where you can… Again, I like to go back to the first point, take a specific person in consideration when you’re making a design decision.

It also gives you the ability to have shared knowledge, so by having a set of, it’s usually three to five personas, three being the primaries, and then maybe a few peripheral personas, two or three in addition to those, it creates shared cross-department reference for… You know, if you’re working on the marketing team, or if I’ve had an experience working on a product or marketing team, I always find that the personas are used on the sales team, or on the operations team, because it’s equally as effective for other activities and not just design.

But the most important thing is it forces me and my clients to think deeper about who the customer actually is. So again, it’s the original sin to make any design artifact without hard data, or some version of it, and it’s an original sin to make any design decision without good, strong data, or at least be informed by it. And so, at a minimum, creating these personas helps create an awareness of how important it is to go out and gather this information, number one. And number two, to when you move past demographics, then it activates the… it sort of forces you to think deeper about who this person is on a personal level, that I think it’s easier to relate.

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Carman Pirie: Look, I think a few points. First off, you’ve convinced me on the utility of personality types and how it can actually shape and change what you create, whether it’s what you… the copy that you write, or the interface you design, or what have you. I can begin to see how that makes sense and how that would translate. And I do think this whole conversation points to another challenge that marketers just have to deal with at some point. It’s that the notion of even creating buyer personas, customer personas, and that process, starting with a qualitative conversation with a few marketers and maybe a few salespeople, and all of the assumptions, and assumptions that are built on other assumptions, and assumptions on assumptions on assumptions that happen on down the road as these things are built out does create a questionable foundation.

Sometimes I think from… unless we just think as marketers we’re just that… we got better instincts than everybody else on this stuff, and we just know it, right? Because we’re observing them, and we somehow have a mythical gift for this, versus the average Joe.

Jeff White: Shh. Don’t tell them we don’t.

Carman Pirie: Yeah, I just think a lot of people call BS on that at some level, or will. But at the same time, those same organizations aren’t always saying, “Okay, yeah, and by the way, I’m willing to invest $200,000 or $300,000 to actually go out and know for sure.”

Jeff White: Yeah.

Carman Pirie: You know, where on a personality-type spectrum do my intended buyers and my customers over index in these characteristics? I mean, that would be incredibly useful information that almost nobody wants to invest in going out to get.

Jeff White: I’d agree with that completely. I think that kind of taking that information from there, and understanding our personality traits and things like that, what’s next as you move into the interface design and kind of creating things for the people that you now know more about?

Yazin Akkawi: Yeah, that’s a good question, so the… at least for my process, for creating a product design, there are different stages in which I’m working with a company. Either they have an idea that they want to create some tangible, clickable experience that they would ask me to create for them. So, “Hey, we know we have,” let’s say… let me try to think of an example. Like, “We have a customer that we’re selling a paint gun to,” for instance, “and we want to create an interface that helps control this piece of equipment.” And there’s nothing defined yet. They just know that they have the physical manufacturing part down, the supply chain around it, the customers exist, and they just want to move towards the interface that ultimately… the digital interface that controls this machinery or this equipment.

When I’m segmenting out different personas, the way that I step through it from there to connect, okay, here’s who we’re designing for. Here’s what they are like. Here’s what they do like. Here’s their behavioral tendencies. They’re somebody who’s going to be extremely careful. They almost overcompensate on caution when using something, versus hey, we have most of our users are people who are pretty reckless, and kind of careless. They’re very open to experiences, and so they’re sort of like they have high levels of extroversion, high levels of openness, and so their attention is usually sporadic and hard to stay in one place. So, those are two different experiences to design for, and it starts to become obvious as you get into the tangible interface.

But from there, to bridge the tangible interface to the people, there’s a lot of storytelling that happens in between, and I think this is also very unique in my own personal process. But taking a lot of this time, a lot of times this is visualized via like an infographic or something, but it’s combining those psychographic personas through a customer journey map, the phases in which they’d consider using the product, the phases in which they are using the product or interacting with it, and even the phases after. All those phases are considered, and basically mapping these personas onto a timeline. How do they behave over time, and how do these emotions fluctuate based on what we know about their personality types?

So, we map all this out into a customer journey. That is different every single time, because it’s… you’re essentially creating a new narrative, and visualizing it in a way that’s very quick to consume and digest. But from there, there are different moments in which features within a product become more valuable than not, and I know before this conversation, there’s probably a distinction to be made between usefulness and usability in product design, because design goes all the way from the strategic decisions on what is this thing, to the tactical decisions of how does it look, or how does it manifest onto the screen? And a lot of this stuff is really valuable for usefulness. How do we know what features to provide? When they’re useful? When they’re valuable? When they’ll be used? And so, these strategic artifacts or these strategic activities, mapping out these psychographic personas over time, it’s really great to get into the usefulness of a product.

Now, taking that across the other end of the spectrum, I’m gonna try to be as concise about this as possible, because again, as I’m sure you guys can relate to, a lot of this stuff can be pretty robust, and comprehensive, and pretty complex, so I’m trying to keep it short. But at the other end of the spectrum is the usability, in which you’re choosing things like colors. Like here’s somebody who is very cautious when they’re using this machinery, and colors like red or orange stir up a lot of heightened anxiety, so let’s use very minimal color palettes, lots of blue hues, to sort of create a calm association with the interface. We’ll minimize the amount of buttons that we display at once, because of their sensitivity to being anxious within the moment that this thing’s on. You know, there’s already enough anxiety just making sure that they’re using it properly, so let’s try to use this interface as an opportunity to create some… as an opportunity to I guess calm them down, or give them a sense of… make them feel a little bit more relaxed when they’re using the screen.

Carman Pirie: I think that’s an interesting overview of really how the personality profiles are driving just two sides of the coin, really. It’s driving is this the right thing to make, or the future sets that we’re gonna deploy or create at any given time, or just kind of what is it that we’re actually making? And then how are we making it? I’m not sure people have always thought about that, or really had that-

Jeff White: The design decisions that are being made at that time. Yeah.

Carman Pirie: Yeah, it’s just, it’s a nice way to articulate that.

Yazin Akkawi: Yeah, and you know, as much as I love talking about the value of psychographic personas, it’s something that’s very… I found has been unique to my process, so I get really excited when I’m sharing this part of the process, and I always get eyes that are glazed over when I talk about the OCEAN model, and the research behind it, and the practical use behind it. Because it’s still pretty ambiguous unless there are examples, where then it becomes immediately clear.

Jeff White: Yeah, yeah, designer guy. When do we get to the pretty pictures? Come on.

Yazin Akkawi: Yeah. Right. Right. Because then we get to the… So, a lot of what working backwards from the experiences of like, “Well, can you make the logo bigger?” Or, “Can you make this button bigger?” And naturally, as a designer, you have to ask why, because if you’re just agreeing to different suggestions, then you’re not really adding that much value, like part of the value of design is the facilitation of a lot of things. But in this case, it’s the facilitation of what the client wants, or what the business wants, and what  the end user wants, and so when somebody’s like, “Hey, can you make this button bigger?” My response is always immediately, even if I agree, it’s almost immediately, “Why? Why do you want this button bigger? Why is it too small? What do you want to have happen by making this change?”

And it always goes back to some conversation around who the end user is, and in those conversations, where you’re… the word that I’d use is negotiating with the client, of how something takes form or takes shape, it’s so valuable to be specific, to use a name, to point at a picture, to point at a personality profile. Because in that instance, you don’t have to read a 10-page document about who this person is. You can just look at a quick visualization, and inherently, immediately understand what this person is like. And they come to life a lot faster, and so having these conversations becomes much more effective.

Carman Pirie: Yeah. I think the OCEAN model, it just helps. You can connect a lot of dots that you don’t necessarily need to be explicit about. You know, when you say somebody over indexes in openness, well, we could probably each jot down 50 bullet points of what that could possibly mean, depending on the business of the organization. It just helps people get it without having to be academic about it, I think.

Jeff White: I think it also speaks to the importance of involving someone like Yazin in this process very early, so that they can help guide that process of who, and how, and why are we building this for those people? You know, instead of bringing design in at the eleventh hour to provide a veneer over the product.

Carman Pirie: Yeah. Of course you’re gonna say that, and our esteemed guest is going to agree, because you’re both designers, and so I just… Look, I just feel like I need to take this opportunity to apologize to our listeners for the… it’s obvious what you’re trying to do here. No, I agree with you. You know, I think that the business of design thinking, et cetera, is… All of that thrust into the world of business over the last decade, so really been around just that, getting the world of design and what it has to teach us brought to bear earlier in the process.

Jeff White: For sure.

Carman Pirie: All right. Well, look. I feel like maybe we just tie it up here. What do you think? I think this has been a fun show. We’ve gotten incredibly geeky about personas, but I think it’s been incredibly helpful in challenging our listeners around just how do they think about who they’re creating for, and has introduced a really interesting new tool with the OCEAN methodology that you might consider in building your personas further. Yazin, I really appreciate you taking the time to take us through this today. It’s been a pleasure.

Yazin Akkawi: Yeah, likewise. It’s really been great chatting with you guys. I mean, I feel like we were just getting started. We could probably go for another two and a half hours. Do you guys have anything… Do you guys have a hard stop? I’m totally kidding. I’m kidding. No, but thanks. Thanks for having me, guys.

Carman Pirie: No, this is what everybody wants to do, is they want to listen to marketers like us drone on for three hours. Yazin, thanks so much. It’s been great.

Yazin Akkawi: Thanks, guys.

Jeff White: Thank you.

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