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Chatting with Steve Fisher - The human side of data

27 minutes and 45 seconds
Chatting with Steve Fisher - The human side of data
Written by
Ryan Boog
Podcasts | Published April 14, 2021

Data and software are great, but what about the human side of things? Our most recent podcast episode features Steve Fisher of Retail Zipline. We will discuss how you have to get to the human aspect of business relations and merge that information with data and software for business success.


Steve Fisher: I genuinely am so excited for this opportunity. Since joining the team, I've been here four months, so not super long, I just see the potential for us to continue to build something special, but also special for a lot of underrepresented groups in technology, but really the world that we see around us.

Full Podcast Transcript

Ryan Boog: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome once again, to the Happy Dog Sound Bytes podcast.

Today's very special guest is Steve Fisher. Now I've known Steve for quite a few years, again, kind of a similar thing, speaking around the country on different topics, and I would notice Steve at these events. I actually invited him to keynote at one of the events that I was at and he did an outstanding job. Steve is a very interesting individual. His life has shifted a little bit since I've talked to him last. So instead of me going in depth introducing him to you, I'd rather pass it off to him and really find out what he's been up to lately.

Steve, welcome to the podcast. How have you been?

Steve Fisher: Thanks Ryan. I've been doing okay. The pandemic is a difficult moment in time, in history, but it is interesting and good to see a lot of people pulling together and it's helped me learn a lot about myself.

Like you said, I have gone through a bit of a change professionally more recently. I joined a company called Retail Zipline, which I would say is a stable and mature startup. Been around about six years. We actually just announced our B series of funding too, so got a new valuation and we're expanding and growing. I joined them as their Head of Product Design there. So working on advancing the product design, the product experience with the rest of the product team, within management engineering and all of that. I'm very excited to join them. Came here from being the Head of Digital Design at a telco in Canada, called TELUS.

Ryan Boog: Cool. Retail Zipline, besides having the coolest name around, it leaves me wondering what is it really about. Tell me what's Retail Zipline all about?

Steve Fisher: Well, it started out, it was focused on building a communication platform that would help corporate decision-makers in retail communicate with individual stores, and it's really grown from there. There's sort of this magic sauce within it of being able to send the context with the to-dos, you can think of it that way. It's a pretty in depth and complex product line that is offered there. It helps companies like Gap Inc., one of the larger retailers in North America, Lululemon, Sephora, Nike and others really communicate all the way from HQ down to store associates, which you can imagine is really important at any given time, but during a pandemic when things can shift in a day, in an hour, sending out communications, knowing that they've been consumed and read and that they've been actioned upon and being able to report on that is really valuable.

So our product, our framework essentially becomes a bit of the operating system for retail or for field operation companies you get to give them that way.

Ryan Boog: Cool. So it's essentially software, but it's not general vague software. You're highly specific in the retail market space.

Steve Fisher: Yeah. The retail market space. I'd say too, you could probably think of it as field operations. So being able to communicate out to a centralized organization from HQ down through districts, let's say to a store location, a gym, whatever that happens to be, right down to the individual that is talking to your customer.

Ryan Boog: Interesting. The thing that struck out to me when I was researching Retail Zipline a little bit is Melissa's story. She had a really cool quote, "She had to leave retail to save it." It to me speaks volumes that somebody who actually knows the industry inside and out is the person that's also helping create this software that helps people in the retail industry.

Steve Fisher: Yeah. Melissa is a fantastic CEO and company lead. Both her and Jeremy, our co-founders, have really set up something special, which is part of why I wanted to join this company. It has got this great phrase and we use this quite often. It's, "From retail, for retail." A lot of us have worked in retail or situations like that, and really understand the joys and pains, the complexity and the camaraderie that comes through that.

Ryan Boog: Cool. What's a typical problem that you solve with Retail Zipline?

Steve Fisher: Well, there are a lot of them, but if you're thinking about the product itself, it's really knowing how communications are being effective and getting things done. So you could think about the very real concept of, "Hey, a COVID health update has come out within a region and our stores need to change what they're doing." The ability to send out a communication with certain to-dos related to the compliance to that, and know that it's been done is a great problem that we see our product solving for people.

Within all of that too, we're trying to make those moments as delightful, and not to be cliche, as delightful as possible, because let's be honest, a lot of us have worked in retail and it's complicated. It's not always a straightforward task in front of you. And so to have a piece of software that helps you do your job and feel like an expert as you do it and then walk away having done it in an efficient way, brings delight to those experiences. It helps make those moments that much better.

Ryan Boog: Cool. Well, I want to shift the conversation a little bit towards data because at Happy Dog we love software, we love data and you guys run some very special software that I'm sure you utilize data. I guess I'll frame my question like this; gut instincts can only take you so far. At some point, data is going to help you drive decisions. Can you name a time where someone, within Retail Zipline, their gut instinct kicked in, it may have been wrong, and data actually is what drove a business changing decision?

Steve Fisher: Well, sure. I can give a pretty specific example that was recent. I won't get too deep into the weeds on it. Essentially there's a part of our product where we'd see customers checking and un-checking something within the span of a minute, let's say. Meaning that as we looked at it, we believed it to be something that was done in error. Within that there was a gut instinct to be able to give our customers, our users a warning essentially. It would say, "Hey, they're doing this in error. It's because they don't understand what it is, and we need to dive into that a little bit more." But as we dug into it, we were able to pull out how often does it happen, to how many different customers and to be able to essentially talk with them too. So not just the quantity of data, but the qualitative conversations too because we're very close with our customers within Retail Zipline, and to understand that problem on a different level.

It turned out that it was an improvement in design, not another message or another step that was needed in order to change that. So if we'd gone with our initial gut instinct on that, let's say, we might've introduced a barrier to our users. Whereas instead, because we dug into the actual data within that, both from a qualitative and quantitative perspective, we're able to offer a better design solution that allows them to accomplish their tasks on a more regular basis with ease.

That's a very recent example within the last month that helped us get pointed down the right direction. One of our design principles is that we put people first and within that is really understanding their context, making sure that we're not just making assumptions and designing by genius or by our experience.

Ryan Boog: That was a perfect example. Thank you. You answered that perfectly. I like to look at things pretty holistically, and that was a great example of how you can use data to solve a problem that maybe your gut instinct is wrong. So data is highly, highly, highly important.

On the flip side of the coin though, do you think there's any data that businesses put too much emphasis in?

Steve Fisher: Yes, I do. I'm going to give some past examples if that's okay because I used to work for a company called Telus. Great team within Telus Digital there. We're serving essentially an entire nation through telecommunications. They are the largest health tech provider, agriculture technology providers, all these things coming in. There's two points of data that I felt were often skewed and that we had to temper with other interpretations or data itself was one, is just money. Sometimes we look to the bottom line as the only thing. And that can be a short-term perspective too. If we constantly make shifts on something too quickly without really understanding the long-term impact or how people feel about it, it can lead us down the wrong path.

The other is that, especially in the digital space, if we were to only look at user clicks, behaviors, paths that they are taking, that can also give us a lot of really important information, but be interpreted incorrectly without other points of data to temper that.

For example, when the whole pandemic was just really locking us all down, say about a year ago, March 2020, I remember it hitting us really hard here, at least in Vancouver where I was, and in Canada and then across the United States of course too. There was the sense of watching what people were doing on our digital properties, but we also needed to take a look at the voice of customers coming in through social media, through our surveys on our websites and through sentiment. And then also taking the opportunity there to while making changes, to have a bit of an AB, ABC testing to say, "We believe this language and this approach is what people are looking for and asking for," but until we validated that with a little bit of testing, we didn't really know.

There was a sense that we could take the raw analytics let's say, and use that as a direction, but we needed to balance that with a much smaller data set of voice of customer coming in through social media, through our website and all of that and to say, "This is weighted a lot higher than a single data point within the analytics," let's say. That doesn't mean that one is more important than the other. It's just that we can't take the 50,000 visitors and each one of those visitor behaviors as important as a single conversation, we're actually talking to a customer or a survey response. Those would be weighted a little bit heavier so that we could get this overall balance and this more holistic picture of our data.

I think that that's really important. We can often lose sight and think of data as numbers and as things that we can look up on a dashboard and that's not it entirely. That's a big part of it. I also think that there are times when designers and others skew towards, "Well, we believe that this is what we've heard from our customers, our users," whatever, and we ignore some of the analytics due to, remember I'm using their quote here, "best practices". It's really a balance of all the above. Making sure that we get that more holistic picture.

Ryan Boog: That's truly a work of art to do that. To unpack what you're talking about here; I wholly agree that their money can be one of those data points that is put too much emphasis in, and when you turn your business into a very transactional business and less of a relationship style business, no matter what sector you're in, it's going to be harmful. You've seen it in the airline industry. We have clients all over the board that they've been working with a vendor of theirs for 10, 20, 30 years and the new person comes in and he just makes cuts just based on budget and budget alone. They don't know any of the backstory about anything. That's just one example.

When you base a lot of your decisions off of that one data point, in this case it was money, you're putting aside the human aspect of it. I think you touched on that a little bit too on your second point where there are analytics, but what is the human aspect of this? What do people really care about? Sometimes, like you say, you got to actually get out and talk to the people, whether it's a phone call, an email, in person, but hearing their actual voice, I think you agree with me, there's a lot more weight to that than just a numbers, ones and zeros, on an analytical chart, correct?

Steve Fisher: Yeah. I would say there's more weight to ... let's say in a user testing session we're able to talk to 20 people over the course of two days. Each one of those conversations holds a huge amount of weight. Now an individual conversation by itself kind of doesn't because we don't know if that's representative, but when you get enough of those, for sure. But that doesn't mean that we ignore the other two. The more quantitative data that is coming in is very important because both help us interpret the other. When we see behavior through analytics, we see it through our lens often, and it's very hard to come at it from that beginner, that customer mind. But when we hear what our customers have said to us, our users, and then start to interpret the data, it changes it. It forms it into more of that human view, sort of how you were saying there.

Ryan Boog: Perfect. Do you have any examples of taking that user centric data and crafting a success story out of it? Let's say there's a difficult task that came across your way and that data or technology came through in shining colors.

Steve Fisher: Yeah. I would say another time, and this is related to the start of the pandemic here, and so I'll go back to my past role at Telus Digital. There was this sense that everything was different. I think we've all felt that unless we're denying the pandemic itself, that the world has changed and it will never be quite like it was before and we're learning different things. But what do you do as a business that’s primary function of its website is to support customers and sell things when the world is shutting down?

And so taking a look at the voice of customer that was coming in from different spots throughout our ecosystem and seeing the world for what it is and seeing behaviors of what people were looking for, we rapidly shifted the homepage, the pathways, the self-serve options on in order to deliver an experience that allowed people to access, partially what we believed they needed to, because of course, we're constantly interpreting this data every single day. We have a team looking at this, making updates, and moving along. Similar to actually the work at Retail Zipline, we're constantly taking in data from our customers to understand what it is that they will need in the next cycle of development and support that we do.

But within Telus there, because we were listening, watching, and learning, we were able to deliver a homepage, our landing experience, wherever they happen to be going to the website, that allowed them to feel heard. So it may have been, we're not selling you anything today because today's not the day to sell. Today's the day to be heard and this is the week to be heard, to an empathetic way of selling, because we know you still need your cell phone service. In fact, you may need more data right now because you're working from home and not used to that, or you're having to be in a new location or really practical and human things like saying, "Hey, we're going to be offering you discounted HGTV or other things because, oh, you're at home and you're not used to it and you need more distractions right now."

To the point where it comes back to a bit more of the norm that we were used to, but it was a progression based on data where those design decisions, the content decisions, the way that that experience was delivered wasn't just, "Hey, we think this is the right thing." It's like, "No. Our customers are telling us what they need. We're paying attention and we're doing our best to deliver on those expectations."

That really helped, I would say, the customers. Now, obviously it's not perfect, but I think it really did help highlight to say, "Hey, we're highlighting these plans that we know you need. We believe in you, what you're asking for," but also the business to be able to survive. I'd like to think that that was happening across a lot of businesses, not just TELUS. That just happened to be my context at the start of all this.

I think another example to go to is the conference that I run every year, the Design and Content Conference. It kicked off for the 2020 season late in 2019. Hotels are booked, location is booked, we're booking speakers, travel, all of that, and then by later February, March, realized oh no, this is not going to happen. And so we had to reach out to the people that had already registered, but also pay attention to what it was that people were expressing from again. Sort of a similar form of voice of customer, but also getting data points from other events and from our attendees that were prospects or registered to really be able to say, "What can we deliver that we believe will be the best thing for you, for our sponsors, the people that help support the event and for the event itself?" Those are the core groups there.

And so taking in those data points and really, again, listening, learning, implementing, changed that for us and helped us to run a successful online event, which felt like going right back to the beginning again and starting over. But the neat thing was when we followed the data and the voice of customer there, we not only delivered an experience that was good; it was excellent! It was the best reviews we'd gotten for any of the six years of the event was for the year that we had to pivot and change to be an online event. Now that could be because we were all just desperate for great things to happen, something that just felt good and we were connected, but I also believe that it was that our team was paying attention to those points, the data, the voice of customer and what people need and designing for that.

Ryan Boog: That's perfect. I couldn't agree more. I think the underlying theme that's woven into this conversation is all data is good, but sometimes the best data is your customer's voice.

With that being said, I want to dance over to a new part of the conversation, which is a little different, but it's fun, and it's user experience. A lot of people really get hung up on user experience in a good way and sometimes in a bad way, but it's an exciting topic. I know that you definitely have a history with user experience and you love user experience, and so I want to ask you a few user experience questions if you don't mind.

Steve Fisher: That sounds great. Yeah, sure.

Ryan Boog: Okay. What do you think is a newer user experience trend that's here for the long haul?

Steve Fisher: Gosh, trends. If I'm transparent, I'm not sure I'm always up on trends, but I'd say that the way that we have been working at Retail Zipline, also at Telus, other places, is to really have design systems that are nimble, I would describe it as. So being able to deliver an experience that we can test, validate, codify and use. That doesn't sound very trendy to me, but I do see a lot more people picking up on that. Whether they're a smaller company or a massive company, these are really useful things because we can get into a thing like ... I love Figma. Getting into Figma and being able to use that and deliver through our designs and experience that we can test, it's a lot more realistic than a very static prototype. Even better would be codifying that design system to be able to test and code. I think that that is something that's here for the long haul. At least I hope it will be.

I love platforms too, like Webflow. Webflow is a great one, where you're able to create this coded experience. And not just for testing; this is for production work too with something like Webflow that delivers on your designs in a way that's far more realistic and communicates that user experience than a static back in the day Photoshop file or something like that, or even a static sketch file. I know we can use Craft and EnVision and all those things to help manage that, but getting right to the interactions gets us better results.

Ryan Boog: For sure. Design systems; I'd like to unpack that a little bit with you as well. That's a concept that excites me and excites us and it should excite everybody else because it's definitely an evolution from the days of, "Hey, let's just find a theme or a template or design, slap it on a website and then make a Photoshop or Word file and that's our design." Design systems are much more complex than that. What, in your opinion, goes into a design system?

Steve Fisher: Oh, lots of things. I think a lot of people start with design systems as being in their mind like a UI library, or a style guide. That's just a starting point. I'd say that's the tip of the iceberg within that. I should preface this by saying I'm not the expert in design systems. I've worked with them a lot and understand them, but there's lots of folks out there that do much better work around this stuff.

But taking those UI libraries and pattern libraries, style guides the next step further and understanding their context, how they fit together is really important. If you think about the Atomic Design that we hear Brad Frost and others talk about and really how do all these pieces come together to make something, but also how do they work together in context, is an important part of a design system. So saying that this codified widget here has this type of behavior when combined on this layout or with these other widgets, this is the object oriented UX that Sophia Prater talks about. So understanding how the pieces all fit together is a big part of that.

I feel like it's not a true, at least in the digital ecosystem, design system, until it's codified, until there is code that people can grab and use and implement and that we do our best to bake in things like usability, accessibility into those things. So if someone grabs a widget, puts it into the interface it works and meets the standards that their company has set out to meet for those purposes. Also, I would say the last, maybe not the last, frontier of the design system that's codified is almost like it's open-sourced. It's a federated system where people can contribute back to it.

I've seen design systems that grow rapidly at the start and then stagnant because they can't scale fast enough to have that, because there's like a single team supporting it for a large organization. But those that can have contributions back and grow and standards that work within that, so this is the coding standard, this is the design center, this is the content standard, accessibility standards, whatever it happens to be that has to be net to contribute this, but then once those are met, it becomes a part of the system and moved into the core, let's say out in the community, that's where a design system really starts to shine.

I'd say having the brands, the styles, the UI kit, the codification of it and how those pieces all fit together in sort of that systems thinking is really what makes it a design system. Before that, it's just those pieces individually, but once it all comes together, it is something that can work and be a self-serve piece of the product or the design or the e-commerce ecosystem.

Ryan Boog: Sweet. Yeah. We love design systems here. We use our own that's very similar to Atomic Design. I know you're well-versed with Atomic Design.

I want to ask a fun question that I think a lot of people like to answer, and that is what do people do to shoot themselves in the foot when it comes to UX? What's a common mistake, I guess, people make with user experience?

Steve Fisher: That's a good question. I think there's a couple of things. An old business partner of mine ... I don't know if this is even a real term that people use ... used to say that, "People faff on things too long." Meaning that you just stick with something too long and work on it by yourself. You're not expanding it out beyond yourself to either other team members, customers, users, whatever your context is. I think it's really important in user experience design, really any design, to be honest, that we get our ideas out there quickly and we test them. We understand, is this a thing? Does this work? Or is this just a bad idea that I came up with? Or maybe this is a brilliant idea and I'm going to learn quickly.

I think the thing we do to shoot ourselves in the foot is keep it to ourselves too long, and we silo ourselves. The more input we can get and quick points of data, the better we are in user experience design, or really any design.

Ryan Boog: Perfect. Once again, you've woven in that human touch into our conversation. You're a pro at that.

All right. I want to pivot this one last time to the lightning round. The lightning round is I just ask you some random questions. You just give me whatever's on top of your head. There's no such thing as a wrong answer, but it's just a way for us to get to know you a little bit better. You ready to dive right in?

Steve Fisher: All right.

Ryan Boog: Okay. The first one is always the easiest one. What is your favorite food?

Steve Fisher: Tacos. Tacos, tacos, tacos.

Ryan Boog: Do you have a certain kind; chicken taco, beef tacos, certain restaurant?

Steve Fisher: There's a place called the Taqueria right close to me that used to be my favorite, but then there's this other little restaurant half a block from me called Rogue. They have these Korean chicken tacos that I just absolutely love. I don't know what it is about them. Maybe it's the hot sauce. Maybe it's everything together. Yeah, they're great.

Ryan Boog: That sounds dangerous in a good way. Alright. What's a hobby of yours that not many people know about?

Steve Fisher: Probably all of them. I love playing guitar and singing, recording, all that stuff.

Ryan Boog: Really?

Steve Fisher: Yeah. When I was in college, I was touring in a band. That's what I did. That was my gig. That was my paying job. I kind of kept it up since, but not in a professional way, just in the I love to do it.

Ryan Boog: So electric, acoustic, what style of music?

Steve Fisher: Mostly acoustic. I do electric. The style of music, it's sort of like the folk Celtic type of stuff. I've got a mandolin too, a few things like that, but really anything. I find myself during the pandemic recording songs for friends and family just as a request. They seem to tend to be 80 songs, which is all right, but the slow acoustic version of the 80 song or the Bruce Springsteen, sort of older Springsteen version of songs.

Ryan Boog: Interesting. If we ever meet again, I say we both bust out some guitars and have some fun.

Steve Fisher: That sounds great.

Ryan Boog: That sounds like a blast. Okay. Next question. What's your best childhood memory?

Steve Fisher: It was camping with my family. We would, every summer, multiple times go camping. Sometimes head out into the Canadian Rockies, Banff National Park, Jasper National Park. If you don't know those, you should look them up. They're pretty astounding. And then down the West Coast. I just loved that. I still can feel those moments when I think about them.

Ryan Boog: Yeah. Banff is one of the more picturesque places in the world if I'm not mistaken, correct?

Steve Fisher: Yeah, it is. It's one of those stunning spots. Picture Yosemite or Big Sur or things like that; it stands out like that.

Ryan Boog: Correct me if I'm wrong, is that the place that has the teal colored water lake? I forgot the name of the lake. I think it's-

Steve Fisher: Oh, they're all like that there, all the lakes are. They're all glacier fed lakes. And in Jasper too, which is also in the Canadian Rockies, just these brilliant teal color lakes. If you go a little further into the interior, into BC, there's a lake called Emerald Lake, it lives up to its name. I was there this past summer with my camper van and I just couldn't believe it. Yeah, it's worth looking up.

Ryan Boog: Oh, that's awesome. All right. What is one thing that repulses you?

Steve Fisher: I don't like people that are jerks. I tend to be a fairly patient person. I think I'm pretty good in social context, but if I read someone and see them just being a jerk, I have no patience for that at all, especially in a workplace and especially to people who are underrepresented. I don't know if this is okay in your podcast, but I'm like [expletive], leave me alone, and leave them alone."

Ryan Boog: That's very poignant. We get you. We hear you.

All right. One last question. Steve, what does your future hold?

Steve Fisher: I hope lots of time in my camper van. The thing that's on my mind a lot is actually Retail Zipline. I genuinely am so excited for this opportunity. Since joining the team, I've been here four months, so not super long, I just see the potential for us to continue to build something special, but also special for a lot of underrepresented groups in technology, but really the world that we see around us. If you've ever worked in retail, or if you pay attention to it at all, in these field operations type of companies, there are a lot of folks doing really important work that are struggling, I would say, but also from groups in society that aren't always served very well. And so I'm genuinely excited about the future at Retail Zipline and how I can help impact those groups and make people's lives a bit better. I know it's just a piece of software, but I do think it is actually changing moments in people's lives and that each moment counts.

My future that I can see right now is definitely within that. Yeah, it's actually similar to the Design and Content Conference that I run. Sure, it's about design and content in a digital world, but the very close second, I'm not even sure it's second, is the social justice side of it, the opportunity for people to grow that don't really have as many opportunities. I kind of see this natural congruence between those two things and it makes me pretty excited. I'm actually getting goosebumps just talking about it right now.

Ryan Boog: Well that's very impactful, Steve.

Lastly, how do people get in touch with you?

Steve Fisher: Well probably the easiest way is if you want to use Twitter and you're on there just @hellofisher. I always respond. Sometimes it takes me a little while. Or you know what? You can just email me. My personal address is just and that's Fisher with an S-H, no C. I'm happy to chat with folks at any time.

Ryan Boog: Perfect. Well Steve, we really appreciate your time. Thank you so much for joining the podcast today and we'll talk to you later.

Steve Fisher: Great. Happy to chat with you, Ryan.

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