Expert Voices: A View From the Top with Fabrizio La Rocca

Fabrizio LaRocca is the Vice President for Corporate Design at Penguin Random House. With a 30-year career spanning print and digital publishing while leading a team of UX and visual designers, I got a chance to speak with Fabrizio about how he got started in publishing, career milestones, putting customers first, and communicating design ideas for such an iconic brand as Penguin Random House.

How did you become VP for Corporate Design at PRH?

I started as an Art Director with the Fodor’s Travel imprint where I was in charge of print design. Prior to that, I was focused on the design of audio and language books. The one thing that never changed was putting the core idea of putting the consumer first and foremost.

Was it a difficult transition from print to digital? Many publishers have struggled and some are still struggling with how much the landscape has changed.

For me, it wasn’t very difficult because I was working very closely with print houses. I saw the way digital was hitting printing presses and how most were going out of business because they couldn’t keep up with technology. Those that learned to quickly transition survived are now thriving. At the same time, this idea of informational design was already happening, so it was a natural progression for me to combine the two.

How difficult is it to design around such an iconic brand as Penguin? I imagine you can’t change very much about it.

That’s right. There is some level of difficulty because of all the nested imprints, but we have very detailed guidelines we follow whereby you can tell the difference between designing something at the division/imprint level and it still carry the Penguin Random House look.

What is the one thing a UX designer should know as they learn to communicate visually?

I expect my designers to be able to present their idea clearly. I’m talking about the actual presentation to the group. It’s a skill that you must practice. If my designer can tell me clearly what their idea is, we can work on actual designing something out.

I thought you were going to say to focus on color theory or typography.

Those things are important, too, but just being able to show me in a presentation a design idea is something more new designer should work on. It’s a skill that will help you throughout your career.

How much research is done at your level and within your group of designers?

A fair amount. Right now, my team is focused on designing intranets and employee portals, so it’s all about making design decisions based on use cases. And, these use cases are worked into presentations which are not only presented to me, but to division/imprint heads depending on the project.

If you had all the time and money in the world and if you couldn’t do what you are doing right now, what else would you be doing?

I’m not interested in much else! I’m wedded and happy to be working in publishing and I’m happy with my evolution. I guess if I couldn’t do this, I would work with smaller presses and spend more time with traditional print publishing. But I’m pretty happy where I am now.

What Are You Really Hearing? Effectively Processing Feedback

At some point during a person’s career, getting feedback from a boss or teammate isn’t out of the ordinary, but it’s something that may not happen every day. In the life of a UX practitioner, getting and responding to feedback is an ongoing event. However, effectively processing and putting that feedback into action takes practice. In researching this topic, I came across three articles which address how understanding and processing feedback at all stages of the UX process will help both the fledging UX designer and the seasoned pro alike.

Before acting on feedback, having an understand of the aspects of how criticism presents opportunities for growth is important. Some of those aspects, as outlined in Andrew Follett’s How To Respond Effectively To Design Criticism, include: discovering blind spots (outside perspective helps to uncover areas of improvement), challenging yourself (taking your work to the next level), and developing communication skills (communicating your objective to a critic will hone that skill). In Jessica Harllee’s Sharing Our Work: Testing and Feedback in Design, she learned that by showing her work in its early stages to other designers on her team and users and testing widely to get an array of opinions made for strong products and better customer experience. Getting comfortable with feedback during the stage of creation when designs aren’t finished was the best way to avoid having customers stuck with a product they didn’t want. It’s not something many designers are comfortable doing, but Harllee points out that pushing for diverse feedback throughout the process will meet user needs and help to develop better products.

Feedback timing and perspectives are important, but the other part of the equation is responding to and putting the feedback into practice. Follett’s article outlines eight suggestions on how to respond to critical feedback:

1. Have the Right Attitude: All design is subjective, an art form and people will see it from their perspective. Be ready to look at things from another point of view.

2. Understand the objective: Before asking for feedback, make sure that the person you are asking understands what you are trying to accomplish, i.e., what are you trying to get them to do. If your objective is confusing, your feedback will be off-kilter.

3. Check Your First Reaction: Take a deep breath and count to ten because your first reaction to criticism maybe to get mad. Taking a step back and resisting the urge to lash out is the best thing. Getting honest feedback is the only way to become a better designer.

4. Separate Wheat from the Chaff: This is really about separating honest feedback from someone who is just having a bad day and is taking it out on you and your design ideas.

5. Learn From It: Putting the feedback into practice is pretty difficult, but to grow as a designer, the need to push ourselves is necessary. So, if someone mentioned that the user tasks are too broad or the scenario doesn’t make sense, revisit notes taken during user interviews or if the copy doesn’t make sense, look for ways to improve it whether by taking a class or asking for advice from a more seasoned copywriter.

6. Find a New Idea: Sometimes, scrapping what you are working on and starting from the beginning might be necessary. Honest feedback may be just what’s needed to hit the reset button.

7. Dig Deeper: When getting feedback that you don’t understand, the best thing to do is always ask more probing questions. Asking directly: “Can you please give me more detail on that?” is better than just walking away with questions still lingering in your mind about what you have been told.

8. Thank the Critic: Thanking someone can create a lasting impression. If you respect the person’s opinion, you can leave the door open for further exchanges in the future.

No matter where you are in your UX career, the best feedback advice comes from Facebook’s Julie Zhuo’s article she wrote entitled Taking Feedback Impersonally. Her approach comes from knowing what mindset you are approaching feedback with: growth vs. fixed. If your mindset is fixed, you’ll see critical feedback as a reflection of who you are. A growth mindset approaches feedback from the perspective of you are always growing and learning, so feedback will help you develop.

Feedback is an integral part of the entire UX process – from research to prototyping. Opening yourself up for it can be an intimidating, but ultimately a better experience and product will come from it.

Design Critique: Website provides the commercial real estate community with top stories, analysis, and industry trends. The majority of site users hold a title of CEO, CFO, or SVP. For the purposes of this critique, I am focusing on the responsive website, including specific features like menu, account sign in, and newsletter sign up.

Discoverability & Feedback

The top portion of the site places the hamburger menu to the left of the logo. Along the same line to the right, the sign in, register, and search button can be accessed. When the menu icon is tapped, the menu and categories slide out from the left and selections are highlighted in yellow when the mouse hovers over each of them. Communicating the results of the hover state helps the user to find the section they want and avoid slips like landing someplace else.

Account sign in is easy to access along the top bar and does not navigate user away from the content page by opening in a second tab. Error feedback is communicated quickly and it is easy to determine what state the system is in at this point.

Another strong and consistent use of feedback on the site is that all article headlines turn a blue shade as to indicate they can be clicked on.

Where we can do better:

The feedback the user receives when highlighting a selection is missing from the social media buttons at the bottom of menu bar. In the screen shot below, the cursor is hovering over the Facebook icon, but the user can’t really see that. Bolding the words or icon sharply would serve the purpose of communicating selection.

Also pictured below is the cursor on the words: “This is Your Home Edition”. The underline gives the suggested feedback that this is a selection that is linked to something; however, that is not the case. Removing the underline would remove the possibility of confusion for the user.

Due to its positioning within the right-hand side and appearance, the heading for NASDAQ Newswire not being linked may confuse users whose mental model already suggests that elements in that area would be linked.

Strong Use of Signifiers

Signifiers, like the section for subscribing to the National newsletter with its strong call-to-action, communicate directly with the user about what action they can take and where they can click. The position of this section also adds visual separation from the top story to the rest of the page.

Where we can do better:

Once the “subscribe” button is clicked, the subscription landing page is a generic list of the newsletters available with no pre-set for the national newsletter as advertised on the homepage. Providing the national newsletter as pre-set, connects the action of subscribing from the homepage in a useful and expected way, while still allowing for the addition of other newsletters.

The registration form is the same form used for account set up (including the list of newsletters). This appears redundant and could lead users to receiving duplicate newsletter or 3rd party emails. Consideration should be given to having the list of newsletters show up once either at the registration point for newsletter or at the account set up level, not in both places.