Michelle Whitman, VP of experience at Razorfish, on using digital experiences to bridge the gap between cultures and why we’re stronger with tech by our side
Adobe XD is a proud supporter of LBB. Over the upcoming months, as part of the sponsorship of the Digital Craft content channel, we will be spending time with some of the most innovative and creative minds in the industry.
In this conversation we talk with Michelle Whitman, VP of experience at Razorfish. Here, Michelle dives into data-driven design and how to use our technological advances in an ethical way and to create meaningful moments.
LBB> Having grown up experiencing two different cultures, how did this shape you and your interests?
Michelle Whitman> I am super fortunate to have a foot in two worlds – my mother was Korean and moved to the US when she met my father, a US citizen, when he was serving overseas. As someone who grew up Hapa in a very White town, I had this strong sense of being different. My mother was an immigrant and she had this natural drive for innovation and problem solving as she navigated life in the US. So I’ve always wanted to understand different cultures and different subcultures, what it means to be a part of a group and how it influences your need state as a group and as an individual. Having access to multiple worlds gave me this desire to enable people and cross digital lines to bring different cultures together. And that’s how I came to experiences, as they can really help bridge the gap between people.
LBB> What does your role as VP of Experience at Razorfish entail and what do you love most about it?
Michelle> I love my job, and I love Razorfish. I am very privileged to have the opportunity to partner with super smart teams. We have a great mix of seasoned and emerging talent, which leads to provocative and thoughtful work, and we’re lucky to be able to do that with all sorts of companies. In my role, what I really love to do is to help dispel ambiguity. So often you work with an organization that is struggling – whether it’s a new audience, a goal, a problem to solve. This is where my team and I can dig in, starting with the audience, understand what they need and what the opportunities are for my clients and their audiences to better connect and create value.
A cornerstone of this is the data-driven journey. My team and I partner with clients to do a thorough analysis through behavioral analytics and other quantitative research along with qualitative research to understand the why. By mapping these journeys, we’re able to uncover the design target’s unmet needs, the pain points across the holistic journey and the ways in which the client’s business can engage, enhance and drive effectiveness. This allows us to do a thorough analysis because there’s always a big delta between what people say and what they are actually do. We’re also very sensitive to using data for good. There’s a complex relationship between privacy and a deeply useful and personalised experience, leading to organisations and people hungry for data and information. So we think a lot about anticipatory design and designing for intent in an ethical way. I help companies define the roadmap on how to get there.
LBB> There is a huge focus on improving ethics in the digital world right now - is this something you’ve recently become more aware of or have you always been striving for this?
Michelle> A lot of my colleagues are talking about the Social Dilemma documentary on Netflix. Having been in this industry for more than 20 years, it’s been really amazing to see how we have evolved, how our goals have changed, and how who we are is being boiled down to just ones and zeros. When I talk to my colleagues, friends and family, the vast majority underestimate the data that’s being collected and how it is being used – or can be used. We combat this by helping our clients make great decisions that they can be proud of, that are helpful to the business and the user but that are not going to invade privacy.
LBB> And what is the general feeling about this in the industry - do you get a sense that everyone is on the same page or is there some pushback from large tech companies for who our data is invaluable?
Michelle> I would be surprised and disappointed if we as a people were ever on the same page. To my mind, everyone realises the power of data and privacy, but it’s more of this generalised anxiety. Data privacy is interesting because I think we’re still struggling with a conceptual model and cultural alignment. By the way, it is not just the tech companies who find data to be invaluable. I started out my career at a direct marketer – and, while it wasn’t nearly as sophisticated and real-time as it is now, it was eye-opening. Our technological advances have just made the consequences far more serious, far more complex and far more ubiquitous.
LBB> Why is it so important that we work on advancing the human element of the digital world?
Michelle> Advancing humanity through digital is one of our greatest challenges – as is advancing digital through humanity. How do we harness technology to further our collective story and progress as a people? How do we create opportunities and meaningful moments? I do a lot of conversational design – voice and chat UI – and one of my favorite studies was on medical diagnoses. The study demonstrated that an AI plus a doctor was more effective in identifying and diagnosing patients correctly. To me, that is the beautiful reckoning of humanity, our intuitiveness and ingenuity, with the power of technology. It is easy to get wrapped up in the latest capabilities and what we can do – but forget that it takes people. My team champions people, including employees, as crucial to customer experience design. Without engaged and empowered people like employees, your amazing technical solutions will sit idle.
LBB> What have been some of the most memorable projects you have worked on in your career so far?
Michelle> I have been very fortunate in my career to have worked with some outstanding people on global brands. I have a few memorable projects. One was for USAA – we wanted to help them honor veterans as part of their NFL sponsorship and thought there was no better way than through a flyover. We used our own footage plus Google Street View to create personalised videos that made it look like we sent jets over servicemember’s homes. It looked so realistic that a few USAA members complained about the wasted jet fuel. Another was for Patrón Tequila, where we created an innovation platform. It started with redesigning and replatforming and led to an innovation workshop in our studio in San Francisco. Since then we’ve launched the Ask Patrón skill on Alexa and Google Home, a Hacienda experience through Google Cardboard, and Cocktail Lab, their virtual bartender. Being able to help steward the brand through digital engagement and build up their ecosystem has been an amazing opportunity.
LBB> How have you seen digital experiences develop over the past decade?
Michelle> We’ve kind of gone from the Wild West of internet design, which was full of novelty with goofy Flash sites and interesting social experiments to a commodification of digital experiences, with highly templated sites that seem to spill a sea of sameness into each other. At the same time, there are some moments of beauty. I’ve long been a fan of Unsplash and to watch them evolve into a platform has been really inspiring. To me a lot of the mature ecosystems that platform companies build is very exciting. I liken it to the evolution of design tools. Over the last decade, the skills that we see now emerging for UX and experiences is really interesting - people are trained in this field now, while the toolset has greatly evolved. I do a lot of work with college students and I’m blown away by the level of conceptualisation and realisation that they’re able to do. This sophistication paired with their bravery to face world problems is really impressive. This is where experience is getting really exciting - it’s almost like the democratisation of design has led to so much more engagement and experimentation. We’re also seeing how design and development can partner in a more seamless way.
LBB> As the next generation grows up native to digital and more attune to world causes, how do you see this affecting the way in which digital experiences will develop over the next decade?
Michelle> A couple of things I’m seeing, like the discussion around racial injustice, is so vital and crucial. This conversation needs to continue and it needs to be brought into the world of design. It needs to help inform our perspective. I see opportunities to continue to partner with colleges and even high schools on bringing critical thinking to digital literacy. How do we teach kids to question everything? Do we start to teach ethics and morality to the next generation of design leadership? I expect control, choices, accountability, transparency and clarity to transform our approach to digital experiences. I also see a world with more immersive digital experiences – where identity and credibility are going to be an even bigger challenge than today. When we think about the already persuasive nature of technology, this will be a potent combo.
LBB> Enabling the next generation to do better is so crucial. When you work with these kids, does the passing of knowledge work both ways? Is there anything you’ve learnt from collaborating closely with them that you can apply in your role?
Michelle> Collaborating closely with the next generation of designers is extraordinarily enriching. I have found it profoundly challenging and fulfilling. From new ways of pursuing design to the reality of living and working at the intersection of gender, race and ethnicity, I have found collaborating with the next generation is refreshing, revitalising and helps me stay relevant and grounded. It’s inspired me to revisit a program I ran for another agency called Mentor Up. While we know how vital traditional mentorship is, Mentor Up puts the less experienced person in the role of mentoring the more experienced person. It helps leadership stay grounded and accountable to the evolving needs of our people.
LBB> What next for you at Razorfish? What are you currently working on?
Michelle> I am extraordinarily excited about the next few years at Razorfish. The biggest initiative for me is Cognitive Reality. We see extended reality – which includes augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality – as the next frontier for computing and for life-changing experiences: Cognitive Reality. It’s kind of funny. We have so much data and information at our fingertips. Screens are important but they are part of the experience continuum. There are more meaningful ways to engage, ways that paint rich portraits and are deeply personal and highly effective. Cognitive Reality takes human behavior, immersive content and persuasive technology to create informative, entertaining, and useful experiences.