Episode #18 - Mark Baldino from Fuzzy Math talks UX and user-centered design

Mark runs Fuzzy Math, a user experience design agency and shares his founder's journey and how good UX can improve your business

In this Episode

Mark is the co-founder of Fuzzy Math, a UX design and strategy consultancy based in Chicago with clients worldwide.

He and his team educate organisations on the importance of UX skills through tailored training and workshops.

Over the past nine years as co-founder, Mark has built Fuzzy Math into a 15 person firm focused on UX design , strategy, and innovation in Chicago. Mark has 18 years experience implementing a user-centered design approach to solve difficult problems.

He kindly shares his experiences with UX, how it can improve your business and how devs can get involved in the UX design process.

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We mention a few different resources in the show and you can find them here:

You can find out more about me, Rob Kendal, on my personal website, or follow me on Twitter.


[00:00:00] Rob Kendal: [00:00:00] so joining me for episode, checks notes, episode eight. Is that Mark Baldino? did I pronounce that right?

[00:00:06] Mark Baldino: [00:00:06] You did well done.

[00:00:07] Rob Kendal: [00:00:07] Straight away. Mark is a co-founder of funny math, ‘funny math’, fuzzy math, or UX design, and strategy consultancy based in Chicago with clients worldwide. he and his team educate organizations on the importance of UX skills through tailored training and workshops. So, Mark, how are you doing?

[00:00:23] Mark Baldino: [00:00:23] I’m doing very well. Thanks for having me.

[00:00:25] Rob Kendal: [00:00:25] No, no problem at all. so welcome to the show. Tell us a little bit about how you found your way into UX and running your own agency.

[00:00:34] Mark Baldino: [00:00:34] Well, If luck or chances is kind of the core answer here. I did my undergrad in theology. And so I know, I guess I had no work. Prospects or no, no plan for how to actually get a job with a degree like that. But I really enjoyed kind of the problem solving side of theology, which is how do you work through problems that ultimately are, are probably unsolvable is going to be maybe who can argue the best or, you know, who can explain themselves the best. So it was really around. How do you, do critical thought and explain your opinion to other people and just work through these, almost unworkable problems at times, I really enjoyed it. But I had a, a sort of minor in fine arts, but I’m not a graphic designer by trade or really a creative by trade. And so out of university. I, I bounced a little bit between some sort of non-for-profit agencies and. and as part of that, I started doing a little bit of web design, but with no true skillset and I really liked it. And literally somehow through luck, My resume landed in an inbox of a consultancy in Washington, DC. that had what we called an information architecture practice.

[00:01:47] So information architecture is kind of a precursor to UX design. borrowed by the library sciences folks, and really about information classification, process classification. So again, a problem solving method that didn’t require technical skills. I don’t have like any developer background and not like true graphic arts. And so I think I must’ve interviewed well, somebody liked me there and I joined this consultancy and I just fell in love with the process. I was, it was just this aha moment. I think a lot of people in the UX industry have. I mean, now there’s degrees in user centered design and UX design, but you know, even five, six, seven, eight years ago, it wasn’t as much the case. And so people sort of stumble upon UX and they realize, Oh, this involves human psychology and a process. And thinking about humans and how to design products for them. And you don’t need like this hard skill set around, coding or it’s hard skill set around, around visual design. And so I loved it and I just stuck with it. And, you know, job after job, I worked for a number of, bigger companies and kind of worked on the business to business and enterprise side of the design world. And then I started freelancing, I left kind of a big company and started freelancing with kind of a small group of folks. And I love that. I love the freedom. It provided me, the control that provided me. And we sort of made a decision. So that was about 2007 and we started fuzzy math. although funny math would have been another good name, head. And we thought about it. I’ll try to throw that into a client conversation.

[00:03:08] Rob Kendal: [00:03:08] Certainly changed the branding, no one’ll

[00:03:10] Mark Baldino: [00:03:10] notice

[00:03:11] change the routine. It might be a better description maybe of what we do, but, and so. You know, we were freelancing for a few years and we just had this sort of decision to make, do we, do we want to have a loose band of freelancers and work on projects and be more flexible? Or do we kind of want to try to start a company here and make full-time hires and make it a little bit more consistent, but, but build a company which is very different from maintaining a freelance career. And I wasn’t really my intention to, to start a consultancy. but when the opportunity arose and we were sort of making. We were having good success is freelancers on big, big projects with big clients. And we realized that to have a company behind us, you. To formalize that would help us, but that there was an interesting challenge there of, of not doing as much design work and starting to. You know, spend my time actually building a company, hiring people, working on sales and marketing. And so it was a pretty natural progression, to get to the point where it was. Okay, we’re going to do this fuzzy math thing. We’ve been doing it for 11 years now with I think a good level of success.

[00:04:14] Rob Kendal: [00:04:14] And what sort of things does fuzzy math. Get up to — it’s going to pain me to say math every time we’re very British. we’re like the ‘s’ on the end, maths. You Americans coming over here, stealing our ‘s’s

[00:04:24]but yeah, what’s sort of things does fuzzy math get up to day to day?

[00:04:27] Mark Baldino: [00:04:27] I mean we’re, we are squarely in the, in the UX design space. It’s where we started and it’s where we’re going to end. So. It means we don’t do a lot of like marketing or advertising on that side of the design world. We don’t do any coding or development. And so what we do for our clients is, is product strategy. So a lot of primary user research and synthesis and product roadmaps to help figure out what the next version of their product should be. we do UI design as well. so, you know, post strategy, what is this product going to look like? So that’s a good chunk of our time. And then I think, as you mentioned during the intro, we also do kind of UX, organizational design and team training. So a lot of times we’ll work with clients on a, a large enterprise product that they have and redesign it while we’re helping them sort of build or stabilize their internal UX team and sort of help that grow. So it’s just really interesting dual challenge of applying our craft for our client and then helping them learn our craft so they can eventually do it on their own.

[00:05:27] Rob Kendal: [00:05:27] Yeah, and I think it’s a key kind of topic, this user centered design in UX. And I, but I think it’s one of those topics that people kind of know about in the periphery. Cause you normally get UI and UX and it’s kind of that this term that’s kind of smushed together, even though they’re very different things. but I feel it doesn’t, it doesn’t quite get enough attention. So, you know, in the circles I’m in, even by huge organizations, they always, you know, they get it wrong. Right. They might have, you know, teams of designers, but they kind of just stuffed something out there and then see what happens. can you tell us a bit about, you know, this idea of UX and user-centered design and kind of what it means to you?

[00:05:58]Mark Baldino: [00:05:58] Well to me, and to, to fuzzy math and kind of what we’re helping our clients with is, is understand their users, not as users of software, but as human beings first, and to empathize with them. And so our process on that side involves. You know, qualitative research and conversations where we’re engaging people about what is their journey as a user or a customer. what are their goals and pain points along the way? What are their frustrations? what maybe do they need this piece of software to do that? It’s not doing what’s their daily work life look like. So I think a lot of people to your point approach, solving technical problems with code or UI, and a lot of times it’s let’s design, let’s get a feature request. Let’s put some UI together, let’s give it to let’s feed the developers and then kind of redo that cycle and, and that can produce okay results. But if you really want to like move the needle, in terms of providing innovative or more effective or more efficient experiences, you kind of got to break it down into smaller pieces. And you need to do that by, by spending time with the people who are going to sit in front of that computer at the end of the day. And then getting what I think is a core component is we do research and we synthesize it. And part of that synthesis is telling stories about, about human beings. And I think people respond better to stories and pictures, as a way to make change. And so, as opposed to saying, let’s have somebody write some requirements, let’s design it and build it. We’re way in front of that process, the feature set and the requirements shouldn’t be written until the research is done and we’ve synthesised it, and we know what the kind of scenarios are and the journey of uses and by using what I want to say as evidence-based research-based kind of foundation for decision-making. It really moves teams forward. So one of the, inherent benefits of, of engaging in user center design is the foundation you have allow, or that we establish allows our clients to make much more consistent decisions. So it gets them out of analysis paralysis. It gets them out of maybe internal arguments of what we should do next. It gives them data. We’ll usually blend the qualitative with the quantitative, like a survey. So we’re kind of in we’re we’re data informed. In our decisions and we’re giving our clients the ability to say this is okay. And they’ll almost allowing themselves to, to, to be comfortable with their decisions. Cause we work with a lot of organizations where they can’t decide their product is stuck. There’s two groups who feel very differently. or maybe it’s a really strong engineering culture and they have a very specific model in mind and they want to drive that forward. And so the product team can’t push against that. We kind of come in between all these teams and say, here’s who your users are as human beings. And here’s what they want out of this tool and application. And here’s a prioritized view of that, and it really does enable teams to move forward and that’s all before we, you know, put a digital pen to paper and actually start designing out the UI.

[00:09:03] Rob Kendal: [00:09:03] That’s really cool. And it’s so important. I used to run, a smaller marketing agency and it was like a, just a few of us doing that. And the amount of conversations. we’d have with clients where we try to convince them that like in the nicest possible way, no one really cares about you. They care about their own things that no one goes on Amazon and goes, I wonder what Amazon thinks, you know, they, they just kind of, I want to buy X, I want to do X. You know, what’s the shortest point from, from point A to point B. and get me that, and I think, you know, a lot of UX is, like you said, it’s understanding, those users and what their needs are. and trying to tailor your thing to them rather than what do I want as a business. because it, it just doesn’t work for them. and that leads me on to there is a, you know, this, this kind of fluffy attitude around things like UX and design where people they can’t justify investing in it. So do you come across those kinds of companies, much with a fuzzy math and how do you kind of win them over.

[00:09:53]Mark Baldino: [00:09:53] Well, I think you, you mentioned something coming to the, you know, maybe part of the fuzzy, of fuzzy math is, is that design is like sort of scary for people and they don’t understand. Stand it, they don’t know what they’re going to get out of the design process, so they kind of push it away and they, they think it’s a very small set of, of, of sort of tasks that you would do around UI. They don’t maybe not understand technology or engineering or development, but they know that at the end of the day, they’re going to get code out of it and it’s gonna do something, right. Whether it’s the right thing or wrong thing. I think clients feel that that, that engineering is going to give them a product. And so when they look at research and they hear the word research strategy and design, they’re sort of like, I don’t really know what this does now. In in 2020, we have, I think, I’ll say a lot better educated clients. They come in, they might not know all the ins and outs of UX, but just in the past five years, they’ll ask for research as opposed to me having to push for research. But. I think what clarifies and when we try to take conversations early on and engagements is around metrics and measureables because regardless of the business, they’re going to have some metrics that they’re trying to achieve. And it’s our job as designers. If we want to be pushing and driving change in organizations, driving change for human beings and users and customers that we need to start to speak a little bit more towards those metrics. And so if the metric is as high level as revenue increase, that’s pretty, that’s easy to draw a line from top, you know, top line revenue, all the way down to what somebody is doing in a tool that that can be really, really hard. But we work with a lot of our clients to establish metrics and KPIs at the user level and at the product level and more. More in depth than, you know, time on site or number of screens that have to click through. We, we drive out core satisfaction metrics, net promoter score, but that’s really driven on product usage, not on like how they perceive the brand. And these metrics were usually establishing as a baseline for our, our clients. And then they’re using that as a measurable to measure our work and the work beyond. but if you can create kind of core metrics and speak to metrics, and that we’re going to, we’re going to drive our work around success towards those metrics. It changes the dynamic of the conversation you’re having. And it changes how people view design. They then see how research actually informed strategy and how strategy can, can inform design. Because when we say we do product strategy, people will be like, well, what exactly is that? I don’t quite understand it. When I say, we’re going to help you, sort of put a set of metrics or KPIs in place, and we’re going to measure those. And we’re gonna look at the ROI of the design effort. then they’re much happier. They actually understand. Okay. I don’t need to understand all the ins and outs of this, but we’re driving some, some metrics where we’re moving the needle in certain areas that we can eventually start to translate into overall business success.

[00:12:44] Rob Kendal: [00:12:44] That’s awesome. What sort of return on investment do companies kind of expect to get like typically out of investing in good UX practices.

[00:12:52] Mark Baldino: [00:12:52] Yeah. I mean, I think, at a minimum, you, if you’re investing good UX practices, and there’s a Gartner report out there that that shows, you know, you’re gonna get a 10 X, so every dollar you spend, you’re going to get at a minimum 10 back. and so we cite those metrics and I think that’s a pretty comfortable one. but we try to start with, looking a little bit further out into the future. We are always giving our clients kind of a three-year horizon. Where do they want to be in three years? And what does success look like from a metrics perspective in three years? And then we’re sort of dialing it back. Because we can understand the, the financial benefit in three years, we can actually back into what sort of investment they should make in the, in the short-term. So instead of saying, you know, give me X dollars and I’m gonna give you X return on average. I generally am starting with, what are the financial gains by doing this project? How can we quantify those? And then I back into, this is probably the, Rough sort of ballpark from a, investment you wanna make. And sometimes it’s less than it makes sense. I mean, there’s plenty of conversations I’m having with potential clients where I look at what I think their return on investment’s going to be, and what’s going to cost fuzzy math to do it. And I I’ve told them, I don’t think it’s, I don’t think it’s worth it. You should focus on these other initiatives. Once you’re at a different scale or we find a bigger problem to solve, then you can come kind of come back to a consultancy like us. So there’s, it’s a lot of education information of, you know, not just what investment do they want to make, because sometimes those are actually. If there’s nothing to measure it on, then they’re willing to put in X amount of dollars and they’re not thinking about what they’re gonna get out at the end of the day. It could be a healthy budget for my company, but if I don’t think it’s actually gonna move the needle for their business, it probably doesn’t make sense for them. It’s not going to be a, it’s not gonna be an overall success.

[00:14:30] Rob Kendal: [00:14:30] And that’s a great part of your sales strategy as well is is, you know, just having that, we used to relate that, you know, the very kind of straight down the line honest thing of like, look, if we can help you, we’ll tell you how. And if, if we can’t, we’ll, we’ll tell you that we can’t, you know, we’re not going to take your money off you for no reason, cause that’s not a great way to start a relationship. And it’s certainly not going to help your business.

[00:14:49] Mark Baldino: [00:14:49] no. I mean, you know, there’s always projects that might come through. It’s a huge budget and huge, huge company. And we’re like, let’s, let’s do it. But. If it’s not going to drive organizational change, product change, user satisfaction. it’s not going to be a great project for us to work on and it’s not going to be a great project for the client and we’re trying to find long-term partnerships. And so there’s an opportunity costs by me taking a potential project.

[00:15:11] That might not potentially lead to future work. and so we don’t, we’ll, we’re willing to say, okay, this is not a perfect fit for us right now. And here’s other vendors or other things you could consider. And that then enables us to take projects that we think we’re going to have the most impact on which is what our team wants to work on and what we want to have from, you know, future sales.

[00:15:29] Rob Kendal: [00:15:29] Yeah. we talked a little bit about accessibility on the, the, the email that we had back and forth. And, I’ve had guests like James Tucker on who in previous episodes. And, you know, we talked about kind of accessibility, a little bit in there. you know, how important is to you is accessibility in, in kind of software design.

[00:15:45]Mark Baldino: [00:15:45] I mean, it’s really important. It’s one of those areas that I think is, can be hard to quantify if we go back to that KPI discussion. So. we sometimes struggle with, demonstrating the benefit to our clients. So more often than not, it’s something that’s important to them given their user population. And so, I think at a high level accessible design and the more accessible you can make it, the more usable it is, it’s just a.

[00:16:10] It’s a fact, if I’m working with somebody or we have a, a user that has a vision deficiency, vision problems and we’re gonna work on kind of accessibility from a visual perspective contrast ratios is one of the ways to measure those. Like if we do that for somebody that has a vision impairment, that’s going to be better for somebody who doesn’t. And so we kind of take that lens, which is let’s make the software as accessible as possible because it’s going to make it as, as usable as possible.

[00:16:39] But one thing that’s interesting from accessibility perspective, at least for our process is the research process. Right? We can actually, and should be talking to a more inclusive group of potential customers or users. When we’re doing early stage research, which is a little bit more ethnographic, kind of that qualitative understanding of, of who people are. And then when we get into more validation research with the prototype, we should be doing that with the kind of more inclusive group of people, that have accessibility challenges to ensure that the work we’re doing meets and exceeds their needs. And then as that first point I made it then creates a more usable, I think, experience for, for everyone.

[00:17:20] Rob Kendal: [00:17:20] That’s quite an interesting point about the, you know, you’re in that end of the spectrum, where you get to deal with the people using it. And I think there are a lot of people who build websites, myself included who, you know, you, you try and do the best you can, but you don’t get as often to speak to that audience, who are actually going to use it. So you are kind of.

[00:17:39] I don’t want to say guessing, but you are kind of trying to hit a lot of bases in the hope that, you know, well, I’ll put this, you know, Aria tag on there and I’ll do this with, with semantic HTML. So they may, you know, make sure we’re covering a lot of bases, but you it’s hard without speaking to the end users of your product. And I think that’s easier if it’s more of a product-based solution that you, you kind of, it’s easier to niche down on these sort of users will be using it. If it’s a broad website, you have no kind of idea. do you think we’re entering a kind of weird time in web development where accessibility is often overlooked or at least kind of overshadowed by this race to build all the shiny new things?

[00:18:15] Mark Baldino: [00:18:15] Well, I mean the, this, this model in, in technology of, you know, build fast fail often, I think has been, we’re starting to be proved as a less viable option for a lot of companies. Our our process and the way we approach it is, is thorough and pragmatic. And so we kind of spend time doing our, our homework. And so I think the rush to get things out the door.

[00:18:41]without a lot of attention to detail, I think is a steak that a lot of organizations, make, I think something like a one week, you know, Google venture design sprint, when that came out, people were really excited about that. And, and while it solved the problem of of not generating ideas fast enough and validating and market.

[00:18:58] The amount of work you can do from research perspective in a week is unacceptable to launch a mission critical product. And so I think people overlook it. There’s kind of this technical check the box. does this work from a screen reader perspective, right? These tags being semantic and how you structure things. We don’t deal a ton with that because we don’t do front end development and implementation, but we, we know about it enough.

[00:19:22]Checking a box saying that your product is accessible, whether it’s the visual which we do, or kind of from a code perspective is, is, I dunno, it’s the exact opposite of actually watching somebody use a product that you’ve designed who’s using a screen reader. Or we’re doing, working with a client and this, the application is targeted at people with arthritis. And it’s a mobile app. And it’s, an app that would have to enter in a lot of data. And we’re asking questions that they’re participating in clinical trials. So, not only do we have a slightly older population. We know that this entire population has mobility and dexterity issues that are associated with chronic pain. So not only did they not probably want to use their phone at certain times, they need to for medical purposes. And so observing those users, actually using any digital device, it really changes it kind of rewires your brain. into how you design, and into how you developed. And I always encourage our clients or anybody who’s interested. You can be part of the research process and watch customers or users use that product. Or, you know, it’ll change the way that you think about how you code it’ll change the way you think about how you, build features.

[00:20:36] It certainly changes the way we think about how we, how we design some of the most successful projects we’ve had is when we’ve pulled in stakeholders into research and, and, and they’d never done it before. And they’re stunned at watching what they considered to be a sophisticated business user, trying to struggle through using a tool is to an unwieldy and unusable. A lot of people talk to their customers during sales. So they want to demo this and make it look good. And then they talked to them during support.

[00:21:03] Oh, there’s a whole life cycle in between there. And they don’t speak to their customers during that time. And so when they do sit down and they watch people use the tool they’ll always shocked at the problems that they’re seeing, that they didn’t know existed because they feel like, Hey, we’re a responsible organization. We listened to our customers. We build features for them.

[00:21:19] But I just think if make a, a long point longer getting involved in the research and watching people use the tool accessibility issues or, or not, I think can be really. It can be altering the, how people go about their daily job. So it just kind of a, an encouragement for people to be involved in the research process at all levels, regardless of whether you’re a designer and researcher.

[00:21:39] Rob Kendal: [00:21:39] That’s fascinating. One of the, one of my first front end jobs, actually at the very first day, we were redesigning this checkout process. And one of the things they had was. they had, I.

[00:21:50] I had to sit all day and go through these user videos where people had recorded the screen and record themselves talking. And it was a range of kind of people, some within the target audience, some kind of outside of it. And then we’re given a task on the website. So go off and, you know, we want you to book a holiday for three people and you know, add the insurance in.

[00:22:06] And it was interesting listening to them, kind of narrate their own journey through this website and struggle with these bits. And then they’d do something like spend 15 minutes filling all in, press the back button and just killed it, all dead. And then the rage, It was, it was nice to, again, to get that kind of feedback and directly from the users. I know you don’t deal in the they’re kind of technical implementation of it, but is there any good recommendations that you have to give people to kind of improve their skills in this? Even if it’s like developers like me, you know, I think it’s very easy to be in your little developer box. And like I said, I’ve stuck them Aria tags on it. Happy days.

[00:22:40]yeah. Do you have any kind of good recommendations for people to up their accessibility? Skills or knowledge.

[00:22:45] Mark Baldino: [00:22:45] I mean, there’s obviously resources online, but I think, if you’re, if you have other team members or you have consultancy, like fuzzy math it’s to be involved in, in the, in the process. So we don’t do engineering and development. But in every project we’re working with an engineering team, either in house or maybe another consultancy that’s coming on board.

[00:23:05] And when they ask how much time we need from them, we’re always asking for time every week with the engineering team and that’s to maybe do what you were doing and watch some user videos and be part of our research process. Sit in on the research. Not ask questions. Cause we trying to do it in a, in a straightforward manner, but certainly be maybe part of our synthesis process.

[00:23:23] And then understand the accessibility concerns and educate them, not just from the technical implementation, but from a design and workflow and visual component, and asked lots of questions. And as I said, I think if, if, engineering teams are more involved in the research and, and, and design process,

[00:23:40] As, you know, maybe co-creators in some places, but participants and others. I think they learn a lot about that side of accessibility. And I just think it will help them make better decisions when it gets to coding and implementation. So it’s just to get involved. I know that’s easy for me to say. people are very busy. They have timelines, tasks, deadlines. It’s more, I think in, incumbent on product managers, engineering leads to carve out time for their team to be involved in these other processes so that they can educate themselves. And so they’re not just getting a UI that they’re going to implement.

[00:24:11] You know, UI and a feature set, and they’re going to go and a bunch of user stories and go code away. They can actually understand how that was all formulated. What was the foundation, for these decisions before it got to engineering?

[00:24:21] Rob Kendal: [00:24:21] Absolutely. And there’s some really good resources on the fuzzy math website. Actually, if you go to I’m. Fuzzy math.com. There’s some really good resources on there and the blog and stuff. I’ve had a little rummage around there earlier this morning. That was a, that was quite interesting.

[00:24:33] So, yeah, really good site. anything else you want to talk about? A plug?

[00:24:37] Mark Baldino: [00:24:37] No. I mean, you did the plug for me, which is great. We have a newsletter that goes out once a month. We don’t bother you all the time. we do cover accessibility as a topic, I’d say at least once a year. and there’s a blog related to that. And some resources on our website, we try to, have kind of a blend between resources, for doers and sort of designers, and people on the, on the business side and what the business side of design is. So wherever.

[00:25:00] You are kind of in the ecosystem. You know, we think we have a little bit of a voice for you, and we’re always open to, to sort of specific requests. Sometimes people will write in and say, they want to hear more about a topic. And so we’re pretty responsive in that manner. We want to make sure that our newsletters and blogs are are kind of meeting the needs of the people where they are.

[00:25:18] Rob Kendal: [00:25:18] Yeah. You might see my name popping up on there. I’m always interested. I was interested in the learning as I think I’ve mentioned this before. I think we work in these kinds of, Venn diagrams these days where you’ve got like your core set of skills, but you really need to bleed over a little bit, to just, you know, improve your own skill set and help communication with, with other teams and things as well.

[00:25:36]so thank you so much for coming on and giving your time up. it’s been fascinating for me to learn a bit more about this user centered design and, and yeah. Thank you very much.

[00:25:44] Mark Baldino: [00:25:44] Awesome. Rob really appreciate your time as well. Thanks for having me on.

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About The Front End

The Front End Podcast explores the in's and out's of life as a developer. Covering topics such as modern-day development, learning and professional growth, frameworks, tools, techniques, UX/UI, and careers.

Created by Rob Kendal, a UI developer from Yorkshire.