Select Page


Eric Hirsh

Using UX and IA methods to re-organize a local food pantry

Using UX and IA methods to re-organize a local food pantry

I am very grateful to work for a tech company that places such a high value on community service. Bronto and its parent company NetSuite give each employee 16 hours of paid time off to be used towards volunteering at either some Bronto-sponsored charities, or other charities of your choice.

Yesterday I volunteered with a mixed group of 10 engineers, marketers, and sales reps went to Urban Ministries of Durham to do things like sort through clothing donations. I ended up in a small group with two of our kickass engineering project managers, Laura Bowman and Rebecca Larkin-Martinez, and we were tasked with something different – to design and document (but not implement) a re-organization of the food pantry.

Problem Statement

Gin Jackson, Director of Community Engagement, explained to us that instead of the usual re-stocking of the pantry, we’d be addressing some recent challenges with meeting the needs of UMD’s clients.

  • The listed types of cans and foodstuffs that UMD accepts had remained unchanged for many years
  • The way those things are physically organized in the room with shelves designated as the ‘food pantry’ had shifted in an ad-hoc fashion over the years, with hand-written labels taped on top of older labels
  • In contrast to the donation list, donors had been giving items with no category (like granola bars, ketchup, raisins). Volunteers resorted to making a place in the corner of the pantry called “Crazy Shelf” with no defined process for giving out any of those items. Most of these items ended up in storage and then in the trash.
  • Thus, UMD has come up with a list of 20+ new items that they will officially suggest
  • Which means that how those items are stored and organized in the food pantry needed to be updated.


Gin showed us two important things. First, here is the representation of how items are currently organized in the pantry:

Current Organization

Second, here is a mixed list of both the existing and the new items that will be accepted and need a place to live. We had to use a colored marker to signify what on the list was net-new.

The List of New Items

Here are Gin’s constraints and suggestions

  • cannot move shelves, must use existing layout and hardware
  • want to “keep what’s working” about the current organization and figure out how to fit in the new items
  • need to recognize that a lot of the new items are very bulky (paper towels, disposable diapers)
  • in our three hour timeslot we were welcome to physically move around cans to test theories but we would have to put everything back because UMD needed more time to implement actual changes

But the most important information we got was about the food pantry users.

  • the food pantry relies almost exclusively on volunteers
    • most of these volunteers are elderly
    • that implies layout constraints like not putting heavy cans on the top shelves
  • most importantly, Gin explained that these volunteers are very adverse to change
    • even minor changes to processes in the past often resulted in complaints
    • volunteers come in twice a month, some have been doing this for years. they get disoriented if cans are in different places
    • one time, two volunteers went so far as to quit because of process changes
  • thus, we could not offer a re-organization that was radically different from the current design

We had time to ask some more questions about how UMD operates, but then Gin had to run to a meeting and we three were alone in the pantry. Rebecca found post-it notes and pens in a drawer, which are, like, desert island items for a UXer, I think. Those were about to come in handy…

Our Process

Even though the three of us had not ever worked as a group before, we got along well. Each of us spent a few minutes walking around the pantry, looking at the existing cans on the shelves, the labels, the height between shelves. We eventually realized that merely talking it out wasn’t going to be enough. Looking at the piece of paper with all the new items and then looking around the room was overwhelming. We needed tools and processes.

Back in August my wife and I attended an ExploreUX Raleigh meetup called “A Day in the life of an Information Architect.” Amongst other things, Julie talked about cart sorting.

Laura, Rebecca, and I found it very helpful to hold tangible post-it notes and re-arrange them in a spatial way, trying out different orders and hierarchies. We discovered a few things:

  • the existing methodology had three hierarchical levels: category (vegetable), subcategory (green vegetable), item (peas, green beens)
  • some of the new donation items formed an entirely new category (household)
  • many of the items sat at the item level under a new subcategory (“baking mixes”) which fit under the category “grains”

Here is a picture of us working with the post-it notes:

Card Sorting

After this, we looked at the shelves arranged around the room and tried to reconcile the basic ordering of items with

  • the amount of shelf space needed for each item (depending on its importance, popularity and packaging dimensions)
  • the location of each item on the various shelves from low to high
  • the fact that the shelving units were mismatched in width and in height between shelves
  • the existing labels written on the shelves that suggested current (proven?) space allotments

That took awhile. Thank goodness we had physical shelves and physical items (tall boxes of cereal, short tins of oats, 14oz cans, 28 oz cans) to play with.

Once we felt decent about a layout, we used post-it notes placed on the actual shelves, representing the future suggested location of an item. Like this:

Post-Its On Shelves


Given how busy Gin and her colleagues are, and how many volunteer groups come and go, we knew we needed to leave behind something that clearly communicated our suggestions for improvement. Revisions and ultimately implementation would not be up to us – we were merely trying to be as helpful as we could in breaking down a problem in the three hours that we could spend at UMD.

Verbally describing our ideas to Gin would have been insufficient. So we created not one but two deliverables. One was a representation of the new suggested order that looked like the original bulletin board – not spatial but merely hierarchical. I don’t have a picture of it, but it was basically our post-it notes all prettied-up.

The second deliverable is what excites me the most, it’s the thing that we knew would articulate our ideas long after we were gone. We created a sort of scale model / crude architectural drawing / layout map of the exact shelves and their location in the room and annotated it with ideas about what could go on what shelf. This visual representation could express order, placement, AND space allocation. Dare I say this was a wireframe?

I have terrible handwriting, so Laura and Rebecca worked their magic:

The Deliverable

User Feedback

No blog post claiming to liken a non-software thing to a UX thing can hold its ground without some mention of feedback or testing. We did that too. In that, we showed the map to Gin and let her talk it out loud while looking at the actual shelves. Her verbal feedback confirmed acceptance criteria in some places and surfaced edge cases in others.

Laura and Gin

What the ensuing conversation surfaced was the need for more storage space in the food pantry. You can’t add 20 new items to the same amount of space and expect it to work out. Especially the toilet paper and diapers, they take up a lot of space, and would be very annoying to have to constantly restock.

Perhaps Gin might have suspected this, but seeing the results of our exercise really made it clear how much the real challenge was going to be more storage space even more than working through change management with the volunteers. As we all sat and brainstormed, it seemed possible that a section of wall across from the refrigerators could be outfitted with shelves. And Gin admitted that no one really uses the bulletin board, so that wall could also be filled out with shelves. And because Rebecca is awesome, and kind, and a farmer, and a maker, she volunteered to build some shelves.


I had a lot of fun going to Urban Ministries of Durham yesterday. Not that I disdain the usual tasks that can be done while volunteering there (making bagged lunches, sorting clothes), but it was novel and maybe even providential that a tech enthusiast and two PMs ended up doing knowledge work all afternoon. I hope Gin felt at least a slight burden lifted off of her shoulders with our attempt at a solution.

It was fun documenting our process in pictures as we went along, but I write this post not to extol our volunteering virtues or shout from the mountaintops that I am some sort of IA expert. I do think, though, that this demonstrates that there is such a thing as “everyday UX”  – finding design approaches in all things, not just in disruptive esoteric software startups.

Everything I Know About SaaS Customer Success I Learned from “Love It or List It”

Everything I Know About SaaS Customer Success I Learned from “Love It or List It”

That’s not a clickbait article title. Well, OK, it is. But I’m also going to deliver on the premise so that you don’t feel let down.

I’m not an account manager (though I used to be), but I do work with Bronto’s customers, account managers, and managers of account management frequently. I am a sales engineer/solution consultant/whatever you call it at your company.

The ideal version of account management is having a proactive relationship with your customer, helping them get the most out of the platform, helping them focus on and realize their business goals. The practical side of this is monitoring customers ‘health’ especially as it relates to their likelihood of renewing the subscription for the next term (month, year, whatever you use at your company). The AM team is looking at Churn, Net Churn, Upsell, At Risk customers, and so forth. Bronto’s platform is more on the enterprise side of things; it ends up being a key component in the marketing stack. So this isn’t the kind of churn like with a mobile game. If a customer is contemplating leaving, or a general state of unhappiness, it’s kind of a big deal. A decision as weighty as, say, thinking about moving houses.

In which the author introduces a conceit

I realized this because my favorite recumbent bike at the YMCA is directly in front of the TV that always has HGTV on. And when I go to the gym, “Love It Or List It” is what’s showing. Like all reality TV, this show ends up being really predictable, and somewhat farcical. If you aren’t familiar, here is the setup:

  • husband and wife (sometimes, but not enough, husband and husband) unhappy with current living situation
  • one would rather renovate (love it) and one would rather move (list it)
  • HGTV sends in two outsized personalities, a designer named Hilary, and an agent named David, who try to woo the spouses to make a decision
  • a shit show ensues: suspiciously-scripted arguments, cliffhangers before commercial breaks, etc
  • honestly, don’t waste your time with this one

Like it or not, I’ve had plenty of time to meditate on this subject, looking up at the screen. There is no where else to look – straight ahead is someone’s butt, running on a treadmill, so, that’s awkward.

There are multiple levels of similarity between the ‘love it or list it’ situation and a customer wondering whether or not to switch platforms. Here it is recast in the language of tech business jargon:

  • customer is dissatisfied with current solution; could be lack of results, could be perceived difficulty of use
  • some customer stakeholders are somewhat willing to explore steps to improve upon current situation, others (a VP-level, a new hire) would rather shop for new vendors
  • incumbent account manager needs to engage in a success/retention plan; competitive vendors need to pitch the bridge to re-platforming with greener grass on the other side

So, I guess the Bronto account manager is Hilary. The other vendor sales reps are David. That makes me Desta, Hilary’s iPad-clutching assistant designer, because I end up coming in to help scope out the technical side (instead of the professional services side) of any proposed solution.

Not only is the general situation similar between homes and SaaS platforms, but the narratives share some key moments in time/hurdles.

Hurdles for ‘Love It’

1.Divergent stakeholders/ Conflicting Requirements

Often, one spouse is driven to the ‘list it’ solution because he (let’s go with he) can’t envision how any modification to the existing house can meet his requirements. He wants a room for himself, but that hasn’t been possible because of children, and in fact, she is pregnant with yet another one. He wants a man cave – she thinks everything would be fine if they could just push out the kitchen wall a few feet and get some additional storage. She’s sympathetic to the idea of a man cave, but truly, on the inside, she could care less. If anything she wants a dedicated playroom for the kids. The reason he wants that man cave is that work is stressful and nothing about the cramped layout of the home today invites him to relax.

In Bronto land, customer stakeholders include email marketing associates (end users), marketing managers, directors of E-Commerce, IT folks, finance folks. You’d better believe they’re juggling multiple projects whose priorities conflict.

Takeaway: The customer stakeholders need to recognize and embrace each others’ pain. With out an organized, written repository of requirements, without a set of overarching goals, the evaluation will not be successful.

2. Improper Vetting

One of the typical scenes after Hilary is given her design budget is her walking around the house alone, getting all excited about the renovations to make them ‘love it.’ Then Hilary goes back to the spouses and pitches her solution, gets them really excited. Invariably, in a later scene, one of Hilary’s contractors points out to her that any modification to the stairway to the third floor is going to incur massive code violations unless they replace the staircase altogether, and this would eat up half her budget. She mopes back to the spouses, gives them the news, and they get pissy and feel misled.

Takeaway: For goodness sakes, any-customer-facing-person-at-a-tech-company, do not, I repeat, do NOT finalize a solution, and especially present ANY pricing, until you have engaged your industry/domain/technical experts (like me) to make sure everything makes sense/suss out the ‘gotchas’.

3. Infrastructure Prevents New Feature

There is a variation on the above where I am much more sympathetic to Hilary, and more judgmental of the homeowners. In this version, Hilary knows full well that the spouses want to finish the basement, add a guest bedroom, a guest bathroom, and so forth. She spots early signs of water damage, brings in an expert who confirms that the house has been neglected for years, rainwater drains towards the foundation, and regardless of anything else, they absolutely must do a project to improve the foundation, divert the water, for any person to continue living there safely.

On the tech side, it ends up being my duty to research, and articulate to a customer (and sometimes a prospect) that “hey, that fancy new real-time feature you feel like you must have? Yeah, you are not in a place to leverage it. You aren’t sending the right kind of data into the platform, and it sounds like doing so would be difficult because you haven’t upgraded or maintained your database/ERP/CMS in years and years and years.”

Takeaway: Maintain your tech stack! You don’t have to obsess over always having the latest and greatest, but, the more you can form a collaborative relationship between your IT teams and your business stakeholders, the more your business strategy can define your IT purchases, the more likely you will be better positioned on top of the fundamentals (aka storing and moving data around and having your platforms talk to other platforms) to leverage cool new things with quicker implementations.

On the flip side, if you are grilling potential vendors about features and functionality, and you find out that you have an upstream challenge that makes you not a great fit for one of their features, don’t take it out on them…please?

Hurdles for ‘List It’

1. Ideal Solution Not Feasible

David Visentin usually starts of his real estate sales process by taking the spouses to a house that hits on every single one of their collective requirements – 3000 sq ft, fenced in backyard, upgraded appliances, AND it’s still in your same neighborhood. They get amped up going through all the rooms and then they stand outside and talk numbers. buhBAM – it’s $35,000 over the max budget you gave me!

This is a risky tactic that can go either way, but I appreciate that David dramatically makes a point – ‘With the budget you gave me, it is impossible to deliver on everything you want. Especially staying in the same neighborhood. This market has gone up in value since you moved in, which is great for you selling, but as far as buying, I’m going to ask you to be open to the idea of neighborhoods further afield.’

Takeaway: Expectation management. Early and often.

2. Risk of the unknown

Indeed, it is often the case that considering new neighborhoods opens the couples to more options around house size. Though the show only focuses on the ‘features and functionality’ aspect of a house, a real world living situation is much more holistic. It takes into account neighborhood, similar families, public schools, property tax values, work commute. In software land, we might talk about the ‘ecosystem’ – programming languages, partners, integrations, developer community, do other companies like me use the same tool, and so forth.

And if the decision is trending towards ‘list it’ instead of ‘love it’ it is often the case that one stakeholder is in a tougher spot than the others. In our example, it could be the husband who currently enjoys a mere 20 minute commute to work but hates that he lacks personal space at home. They could have the house of their dreams, he’d get the man cave, but his commute would double to 40 minutes. The decision is mutual, but he is being pressured to try to anticipate/visualize/quantify the impact on his quality of life of a longer commute but a better home. Humans tend to be bad at accurately envisioning outcomes and consequences of future realities.

Vendors selling in to companies who are contemplating a platform switch are facing the same situation with the same level of impact: a single decision that will affect the family (or business) for anywhere from two to ten years and will cost tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars and set the tone and framework for daily life.

Takeaway: Well, this could be an entire sales book. And it’s already been written many times over. There is a reason that people talk about not just ‘painting a picture’ of goals but also of clearly and compellingly demonstrating what it is like to ‘build the bridge’ from the current situation to the future/ideal situation. A colleague of mine recommends “Demonstrating To Win!: The Indispensable Guide for Demonstrating Complex Products” by by Robert Riefstahl.

Thrilling Conclusion

What is both predictable and compelling about watching “Love It or List It” is that the spouses have to make a decision. After seeing their home renovated, after seeing some options on the market, they have to have “the talk”, weigh the pros and cons, flip a coin, whatever, and make a firm decision to go down a path. 30 Minutes of reality television cannot accommodate “analysis paralysis” – we have to see them choose! And so it is in real life – if a situation is dire enough that it merits evaluation, it is a shame when that evaluation cannot lead to an action.

As you can see, I am probably in fantastic shape, because I’ve had a LOT of time to think about this extended metaphor at the gym. All joking aside, I really do think that “Love It Or List It” makes for good television for anyone in sales or customer service. There are things to learn about selling skills (expectation management, getting buy-in, identifying with your prospect) as well as things to learn about customer success (risk factors, stakeholder analysis, the art of the compromise).

But if HGTV isn’t your style, in a future blog post I’ll write about my take that “The Martian” is essentially the first procedural sci-fi book/movie to take highly formalized, enterprise-level project management and somehow make it exciting. Seriously, all it is is one clever guy in space talking to the ground crew, then the ground crew goes to their engineers to state the requirements and tell them to solve a complex problem, then those solutions get communicated back up, and they have lots of meetings about it in the interim. That’s all that happens in that book. Also, Mars.


The Allure of “Personalized 1:1 Online Customer Experience At Scale” vs The Actuality of Locally Owned Brick and Mortar Stores

Over the coming weeks and months I’m going to blog more. And it will be that kind of blogging where I bang something out in 45 minutes – as an exercise in articulating my thoughts and observations about customer experience, user experience, information architecture, commerce marketing, and so forth. I don’t expect these next posts to be very concise, or to be easily sharable for “5 top things you need to do.” Mostly, it’s time to do the hard work of ‘finding my voice’ – the subject matter and theses that drive me the most. So, here it goes. Comment if you like where things are going.

In my role as Sales Engineer at Bronto [Software LLC, A NetSuite Company], I am privileged to interact with many different commerce-focused businesses on a weekly basis. Different verticals, different sized companies. Some are potential Bronto customers and I’m helping a sales rep with the technical aspect of ‘how Bronto can solve your problems’; others are Bronto customers looking at new marketing initiatives. Between those client interactions and keeping up with the blogosphere (I use Feedly) and teh Twitters, I can see both the real problems marketers face and the enticing concepts they are being bombarded with to solve those problems.

Omni-channel. 360 degree view of the customer. Personalized recommendations. Predictive. Seamless customer journey across devices. Et cetera.

The growth of e-commerce, and specifically, mobile commerce seems like a sure thing, but what’s less sure is how a company can guarantee the kind of visceral, sensory, loyalty-producing shopping experience that can be found in the very antithesis of a digital business – a locally owned store.


A few weeks ago I made my twice yearly 6-mile pilgrimage to Kitchen Works, a mom-and-pop non-franchise kitchen supply store in a smaller mall that is currently redefining itself. Specifically, I went there to get my knives sharpened. They offer this service for quite a reasonable price, and I simply don’t trust my own (lack of) fine motor skills to try to do it myself. So I came in to drop off the knives, but I saw a sign out front saying that all of their German knives were being marked down up to 80%. I wasn’t in the market for a new quality knife, but that kind of markdown was enough to get me to walk over to the corner with all of the nice (usually expensive) knives.

I was quickly overwhelmed at the brands, sizes, and options. If this was an online experience I’d rely on search, reviews, popularity to curate my choices. But instead I asked the nice woman at the counter “Hey, I currently have two knives, one 7″ chef’s knife and one paring knife. If I was looking to expand my portfolio to a third knife, what kind would I want to buy next?” She came over to the knives and her response made her knowledge, experience, and passion quite transparent. She suggested that another 6″ or 7″ knife might be a good choice, as one starts to have more things to prepare or more people to feed, it is helpful to have more than one of the same thing. Specifically she pointed out that at home her own favorite knife is a Wusthof santoku knife, which is a Japanese design that has hollow sections that make onions and such not stick as much when you are chopping. I didn’t know that, but it made a lot of sense. She sure sold me! I haven’t gotten it yet, and I really had to hesitate and pull myself out of “just because it is on sale right now isn’t a good enough reason to make a purchase.”

But it sure did increase my respect for this establishment, which is usually out of my way, and certainly not as convenient as Amazon. Something else happened to really make me think twice about the brick-and-mortar vs online shopping experience; really it struck me so much that I was inspired to write this blog post.

When I came back two days later to pick up the knives I decided to let myself buy a little something. I narrowed in on the idea of a handheld grater. This store had a selection of about 8 or so, some from the same brand but with different designs and price points. A manager came out of the back room and explained to me that I should avoid such and such model because even though these two graters are the same brand, the one on the left is from when the brand sold its intellectual property to a different manufacturer who started making an inferior product that wasn’t as sharp/didn’t last as long. The one on the right the original brand is still allowed to sell under that name and even if it isn’t as pretty looking, it is really a better grater. She had even called up the newer manufacturer to complain about the quality of the product she was now having to buy from them as they continue to release new and related SKUs.

Wow. Let’s unpack that, there is a lot to dig into there. First off, this manager, and her associate were absolutely customer-first in their interaction with me instead of business-first. Here is a manager who probably has decades of experience in the kitchen supplies retail industry, enough so that she has two-way conversations with her wholesalers and manufacturers, mostly on behalf of her own passion for the products, but also so that she can advise her customers. Technically, the thing she was encouraging me to choose was $2 cheaper than the newer crappier thing. But she knew that this wasn’t about margin, this was about not just a sale/conversion, but about creating a loyal customer. And they now have one in me.

What software-based product recommendation engine can parallel that sort of industry knowledge and interactive context? Data-driven engines can say things like “people who bought this bought that” but I got so much more out of the real-world recommendations made by this manager.

And I know that doesn’t scale. I don’t know anything about how well Kitchen Works has been doings or their plans for sustainability or growth. And I know not every person in America who needs a grater has the time or privilege to go out to a store and talk about it. But a story like this certainly sets the bar high for online retailers. I don’t have answers, but this experience certainly made me want to pause and ask questions.

OK. Tangent. Second subject: Marketers talk about how much they like the accuracy and analytical assurance of online marketing. Especially in logged-in context when they can confidently identify individuals (via ID, email address) and study their behavior and preferences with technology. That’s all fine and well, but I don’t know if that is “more data” but rather just “a different data set than what is available to brick-and-mortar stores.” Physical retailers absolutely ‘nurture leads’ inside the store and have data available to them to make judgements and prioritize. The manager could see that I was a male, could look at my clothing and make a reasonable guess about my income level and affluence, could study my body language and infer level of interest in the details of the products, some sense of interest in her recommendations and whether I was likely to buy or want to be left alone. And she could ask me questions and hear me talk. Those are all data streams. And I wonder if those aren’t, at times, more valuable than the digital ones that might be easier to track like “amount of social activity, birthday, first name, past purchase behavior” and so forth. Does the number of times your social follower ‘like’ your posts truly reflect that they are an influencer or a more loyal customer? Or are they just a narcissistic person with not enough disposable income and too much time on their hands?

Final tangent. Third subject. While we are on the subject of the in-store experience as it relates to commerce at scale. Maybe technology solutions aren’t always the best approach to a problem, yeah? For example, I saw an article about a study in RetailWire a few months ago. The research showed that training your retail sales associates can lead to a sales lift of up to 23%. There is an idiom (and a hilarious subreddit) that is the appropriate response: #NoShitSherlock.



I would like to begin this blogging exercise to state that I am generally against blogging. I have high standards for content – I like to see well-researched, citation-heavy, long-form articles that pave new ground and contribute not just information, but a synthesis of knowledge to whatever topic is being discussed. I don’t like listicles – I doubt there is much to learn from “3 Things Highly Creative People Don’t Not Do Every Day,” and most posts promising ‘business insights’ end up delivering merely common sense.

If you simply must insist on ‘thought leadership’ and putting numbers in your post titles to increase click-through rates, then you at least need to have a target audience and ensure that you are giving generously to your community, that you are genuinely adding value, rather than performing a bait-and-switch for a product pitch. It’s the golden rule of content marketing.

This blog neither has a target audience, nor will each post be especially thorough. This makes me uncomfortable. But there is a point to the discomfort – professional growth. I know it is a best practice for a professional to reflect and write a lot as he learns and advances in his career. Even though I think this sort of writing is best left local, private, in an Evernote notebook, I am going to put aside my skepticism and publish my raw thoughts, my learning processes for the world (or absolutely no one) to see.

I already blog about my artistic career, but not yet about my professional one. That’s because I’ve had clarity for quite some time on what I want to achieve with my performing and composing. After eight years of work ‘wearing many hats’ at two different tech startups, I’ve decided to align my career strategy with the goal of becoming a product manager at a SaaS company. It’s a wonderfully cross-disciplinary role, sitting somewhere between business, engineering, and user experience. If I am anything, I am Glue – I hold things together. I collaborate, I translate between disciplines. So I am taking all of my previous hats (account manager, customer support, project manager, event planner, music marketer, data analyst, band leader) and putting them all in the product manager basket. Perhaps I will first spend a few years as a sales engineer, an account manager, or a software project manager  – but the end game is to become a product manager.

So. This blog. A place for me to document the journey. I’m finally getting direct experience in a product role – I just started a contract to do product analysis for an advertising technology startup. I suspect there will be posts about that. Also, I intend to learn Python. Of the many languages I could start with, I chose Python because it is not limited to web development, and it is the lingua franca of data scientists (along with R, a statistical programming language). Finally, I am currently enrolled in a user experience class (taught by my friend and former colleague!).

If you’re out there, feel free to comment. Welcome to Artifex!