Interview with Scott Michaels, Chief Strategist at Apply Digital

Ever wondered what it’s like to work in a cutting edge design agency? Our Design Program Director Karina Daukaeva sat down with Chief Strategist Scott Michaels to get the inside scoop…

With our November events just around the corner, I’m excited about one in particular — having the core team from Apply Digital, Vancouver-based product agency, join us for a fireside chat on November 22 about what it’s like working with global brands. While we are waiting for the day to arrive, I wanted to take an opportunity to talk to the panelists before hand to share some of their personal experiences and thoughts about the agency industry, design, and where the future of tech industry is going.

This interview is with Scott Michaels, Chief Strategist at Apply Digital, who has been an integral part of the sea-change to digital for many companies, including Metalab, Microsoft, Bloomberg, ESPN, HBO and hundreds of other F1000 companies. Fun fact: there is a high probability that your phone contains something Scott has worked on.

How did you get into an agency environment? What made you stay there?

It’s a long story, but started by the need within a corporation I was working in, to engage an agency. However, at that time the agencies that were hired were (to be blunt) total shit at anything digital and I realized that I could do better. Soon after, the opportunity arose to be a partner in a digital first firm and I took it.

From there the business grew and focus did of course change over the years but the underlying truth was that being a specialist always meant you could get the better, more interesting work. That both makes the agency succeed, and at the same time, keeps you in the work. You end up staying because everyday is a new challenge that you haven’t seen before, and you end up with a mindset that means you would go crazy if you worked on a single product. Agency life gives you that diversity.

What’s the most challenging project you’ve ever worked on? Why?

While I certainly have worked on lots of challenging projects, and in the same vein challenging clients, one that really sticks out was working in Vegas for the Wynn Resorts. The Casino environment is like nothing else I have ever seen. Everything you take for granted is out the window. It has both a complex and deep corporate structure, as well as having a need to move incredibly fast in a highly regulated environment. Those opposing forces mean you have to be agile, and at the same time produce more planning documents than you can imagine.

What’s the best part of your job?

Every day is a new problem to solve, combined with the velocity of change for mobile and digital products in general. The requirement to learn, every single day is the best part of my job.

What’s your biggest professional accomplishment?

Being part of the digital transformation for a few key companies, such as the New York Times and ESPN, and in doing so becoming a trusted voice when it comes to the mobile ecosystem.

Apply Digital being such a new company, it must feel like a startup most of the time. What does your work/life balance look like?

As a partner in the business, the balance of work / life is a very blurry line. I take the opportunities during my time at home to complete some work, but at the same time while in the office, I ensure to take the time to communicate with my family. I would say it’s not really a factor that Apply is a fairly new company, this type of job always has much more work and learning than you can ever actually accomplish. It’s about setting boundaries and priority.

I think in this line of work, one skill you must gain is to be able to context-switch from one client to the next, or from client work to family, in a heartbeat.

What are the biggest challenges that exist in mobile apps industry?

This is a very large question. One is that mobile is a channel, an app is a component of that, and the time of “we need an app” is long in the past. It’s very clearly now “what does the app do for me” as the expectations for functionality are very, very high. Secondly, the technology of apps moves so quickly that every 6 months the change is significant enough that you may need to re-tool.

As an industry, the biggest challenge today is ensuring that the product does not get reduced below the line of the Minimum Viable Product in favour of time to market. Crossing that line means sure death of the product, usually in a spectacular fashion.

Where do you see the future of design and digital products going?

Right now, I see the separation of marketing and product management after the release to the market as the fastest changing segment. By this, I mean that the product team can focus on the product while at the same time the marketing and management team can experiment and change the application in real time. Being able to make these changes in native applications is huge to both productivity and ability to adjust the product-market-fit equation in time to generate the revenue needed to keep the lights on.

I see this separation of duties being invested in very heavily in the Silicon Valley, and all product teams will be able to take advantage of it.

What piece of advice would you give to somebody who is just starting out in an agency environment?

Advice to those just starting out:

  • Realize that the speed we all need to work means sometimes the depth behind a decision will not always be obvious to you. Please ask! I don’t know anyone who would be upset about questions around the ‘why’. Conversely, don’t assume you know better. Give the team the benefit of the doubt as all the factors in play are never clearly delineated. Again, ask — we like that.
  • Figure out how you can get from “I think” to “I know”. Is there data to back it up? With the wealth of information available to you, opinions matter much less than concrete conclusions … or at least opinion based on line-of-sight of the data behind it.
  • Be very conscious of what can be shared. Agencies have very clear agreements around privacy and nondisclosure. What may seem like nothing to you can be a dealbreaker to the client.
  • Don’t tie yourself to a particular toolset. The skill you need is to be able to pick up and use new tools on a regular basis.

Any other comments/thoughts you would like to share?

If I was entering the agency world now, I would pick a topic that you love, and then do everything you can to absorb the available learnings. Be it conversational UI, AI, learning systems, VR… it matters less that you picked the right one and more that you can bring a depth of knowledge to the workplace. Being a generalist is a sure way to limit your advancement.

Would you like to meet Scott in person? Register for the event on November 22nd or follow Scott on Twitter.

Also published on Medium.

Lead Ux instructor Karina eating red sweeties
Karina Daukaeva

Karina is an experienced UX and graphic designer with a primary focus on interaction design and product development. Having graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Cognitive Psychology, she originally started as a digital illustrator and gradually moved to web development and branding. Her biggest passion is working with startups and custom-built products, as it gives her a chance to work with different stages of the product, from visual identity, design, and branding to front-end development, market research and testing. She currently leads UX Professional and Foundation Programs.

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