Friday, January 18, 2019
Johnny Le, Senior VP - Director of Digital Services

A few years ago, I attended a talk on the redesign of a university website at a digital conference in Portland. The speaker dove into the data used to drive the User Experience (UX). He exclaimed that there was one gem they found in all their research that helped drive a crucial part of their website: “Photos of Trees.” WHAT?!? You heard that right, they reviewed hundreds of university websites, and the common theme of the best performing pages contained photos with “trees.” Students under trees, benches under trees, heck there were some horses under trees. They mined for more gems, finding research on how students learn better in classrooms with views of trees or how trees calm us down. You can certainly see where the design direction followed, including large full-width photos of university life…under trees.

There’s no hard rule on what defines a gem and you don’t have to be some sort of data mining expert to discover one. What you need is curiosity and the internet. And when you find it — the little a-ha moment of a trend, a pattern or an untapped line of thought — you can find the insight that makes a Real Connection. Here’s where to start looking.


Swanson Russell recently brought in international user experience and design authority Josh Clark from Brooklyn’s Big Medium to give us a different, inspiring perspective on approaching digital and UX. A highlight from his presentation was this question: “How can I be of service to others?” In great digital work, it’s a team effort with lots of folks touching the project. In a perfect world, each team member sets up another for success. But when that doesn’t happen, for example, when we spend too much time creating high fidelity wireframes, or nitpicking layouts, we compress the time someone (i.e. developer) has to actually make the thing! If we could get to making the “thing” earlier (or on time), then it’s easy to find gems. It’s because in a team environment, people are the “gems.” If a developer or UX designer had the time to soak in all the information about the “thing” they are going to make, they may offer up gems for consideration, such as the latest trends or unique integration. So be a gem: let your UX designer or developer in on the project early (or on time) and give them time to find what you might not have been able to see.

Find the Gems in the Weirdness

In late 2016, Spotify launched a hilarious campaign using listener data as its basis. It wasn’t the expected “top songs” played in 2016 or how many times Taylor Swift was played. It was the weird stuff, the gems that had to be mined because someone was looking for it. For example, one ad said, “Dear person who played ‘Sorry’ 42 times on Valentine’s Day, What did you do?” Another ad said, “To the person in NoLita who started listening to holiday music in June, You really Jingle all the way, huh?” The ads were met with such enthusiasm that Spotify subscriptions met a record high upon their release. And it all came from gems mined from basic dashboard data, which provided a map to the weird, interesting executions that made the campaign work. Maybe you should look at your client’s Google analytics and trace specific user paths to their end point. What sticks out to you? That’s a gem. 

Find the Gems in the Past

Whether it’s how Drake somehow brings Michael Jackson back to life in his latest song, or He-Man coming back in GEICO commercials, pop culture’s cyclical nature and history’s habit of repeating itself create lots of gems. Social media is the ultimate curator of these — with Facebook’s “memories” or #TBT (throwback Thursday) hashtags letting you look back in time to find the gems of the future. For example, post some old popular print ads or old product packaging, nostalgic items that will awaken collections of memories from your audiences. Then, look for clues in comments or even user paths. Maybe it informs purchasing decisions or gives you the next idea for a campaign. Maybe Pepsi posted a #TBT Cindy Crawford poster to test if it made sense to invest in bringing her back for their Super Bowl commercial. If you’re fishing for gems, nostalgia is a good lure.

Gems are everywhere you look — if you know how to slow down and pay attention to it. But the difference between someone who can find them and someone who can use them effectively is insight. It’s not just about finding the hidden things that move the needle it’s figuring out why they move the needle and if/how they can do so for your brand. Google is your friend, but only because of this gem.