Young Upstarts

All about entrepreneurship, intrapreneurship, ideas, innovation, and small business.

[Interview] Bo Zou, Toronto-Based Digital User Experience Specialist And Thought Leader

Remember Pokemon Go?

It wasn’t even two years ago that this free, location-based augmented reality mobile game took the world by storm. It drove millions of people out of their living rooms and onto the streets, into parks, museums and stores, glued to phones that would reveal mythical creatures to catch along the way.

Toronto’s Bo Zou says the Pokemon craze is a noteworthy example of how digital user experience informs, inspires and transforms collective human behaviours. It also showcases how getting it right can transform startups into players: Pokemon Go caused software startup Niantic’s revenues to skyrocket by $600 million within just three months of its mid-2016 launch.

He also believes that startups often have an advantage in using technological advances to help them innovate customer experiences. “In many respects, it’s the leanness, flexibility and agility of startups that help them become successful,” he says. “They’re the ones doing the disrupting, and their innovations are making waves.”

But startups are also small enough not to have lost sight of the customer, the end user, Bo says. Oftentimes, they have a much closer connection to end users, thus finding it easier to connect the dots to design user experiences that matter.

Helping clients in all stages, sizes and sectors do just that is exactly how Bo has developed his career.

For the last 15 years, Bo Zou, who works and lives in Toronto, has been developing and executing experience strategy and design through all digital channels for companies like HeathWallace in Asia, and Crispin Porter + Bogusky in Canada, along with his own experience design studio in Toronto.

The Chinese native equipped his career path with two postgraduate degrees from London universities in the United Kingdom – one focusing on human/computer interaction with ergonomics, and a second with an emphasis in visual arts and arts criticism.

User experience is really at the heart of digital transformation, Bo believes, and it’s a critical aspect of building and differentiating a strong brand that engages customers. The explosion in data in today’s digital era leads to deeper and more expansive insights into customers and stronger, more personal connections, as well. Further, he notes, opportunities for innovation are virtually unlimited as digital channels grow.

Bo’s heritage has inspired him to put a special twist to his focus on user experience – integrating the ancient Chinese philosophy of feng shui into his practices. “Feng shui is all about harmonizing people with their surroundings,” he says. “By leveraging technology to provide a sustainable sense of harmony and delight, a brand can be transformed to be truly human-centric.”

Bo Zou recently spoke with Young Upstarts about digital transformation, user experience and what it means to entrepreneurs intent on building their own brands.

While startups in many ways have advantages in terms of culture and customer relationships over larger enterprises, how effectively do you think they have harnessed the power behind digital transformation and why? What do you think they could consider doing differently?

Bo Zou: One of the key elements within digital transformation is cultural shift. Too often organizations invest heavily in digital tools and platforms in the hope of swiftly bringing their business operations into the digital age.  Unfortunately, statistics demonstrate that more than 80% of these companies fail due to the cultural and human resistance within those organizations. In other words, digital adaptation must be rooted in organizational culture and human relationships to make it effective and sustainable.

On the other hand, startups are often the first adopters of the latest technologies, especially around operational and productivity tools, digital marketing and customer relationship management. We are in an age where a vast pool of free and affordable digital tools and platforms are widely available for startup companies to leverage.

That said, one of the key challenges a startup often faces is creating a consistent digital strategy that connects the disparated ecosystem in a way that makes it seamless and efficient, as well as scalable in the long run. Operating a business using free digital tools among two or three founders is one thing; using tools like these within a mid-sized, multi-disciplinary team across multiple locations is another story. Instead of hitting a ceiling down the road that may cost tens of thousands of dollars to fix, and potentially slow down the company’s growth, it’s always better to have a clear digital roadmap from early on.

Working with digital transformation consultants, as well as business incubators, can help connect the dots, create a clear roadmap for a startup company to grow its culture, streamline its business operations and, more importantly, pave the way for future growth.

Digital technology has been a hugely disruptive influence on society and culture, while feng shui is centred primarily around creating a harmonious environment. How do you align such opposing forces to create an impactful user experience? What are the specific principles that you apply?

Bo Zou: In the spectrum of human civilization, digital technology has only been around for a very brief period of time, if we compare this to the thousands of years of human knowledge and wisdom. Even though technologies grow at an exponential rate, we as the people who interact with the technologies are pretty much the same as our ancestors. This contrast often causes a disconnect in our relationships with society and the environment at large.

As a digital veteran who has been dealing with technology advancements and how they impact human behaviours, I’ve seen this conflict firsthand and share many concerns with respect to how we can maintain sustainable development, while staying true to what it means to be human.

This is exactly why I saw the connection between the rich ancient Chinese doctrines of Feng Shui and the digital evolution of today. Feng Shui is much more than just a philosophy. It is based on over six thousand years of concrete applications in architecture, urban planning, social engineering, human relationship building, tools, processes, as well as communications. It’s real life applications are still very prominent and alive in many parts of the world. It is a natural extension to resort to Feng Shui principles to find ways of resolving the human conflict with a fast-moving technological landscape.

In essence, there are three key principles in Feng Shui that I apply to digital user experience design over the years: one, design for an integrated and holistic system; two, design for context; three, design for sustainability.

What have one or two of your favorite or most challenging projects been in experience design and strategy, and why?

Bo Zou: One of the most challenging (and inspiring) recent projects I’ve led and worked on was Manulife MOVE, a fantastic example of applying Feng Shui principles in digital business transformation.

In the past, insurance companies faced three major challenges when dealing with their customers:

  • There’s always a stigma around the concept of insurance – people think they only need insurance when something ‘bad’ happens.
  • People have trust issues with insurance companies, mostly around transparency and legal small print.
  • Customers only interact with insurance brands when they purchase or renew an insurance policy and when they make a claim, but rarely in between, making it a big challenge for insurance brands to build an ongoing customer relationships.

Through applying Feng Shui principles of designing for context and finding opportunities to integrate insurance brand offerings in a positive way to customer’s day-to-day lives, we have developed a brand new type of insurance offering altogether.

Instead of a traditional fixed premium insurance policy, Manulife MOVE was launched as a beautifully designed mobile fitness app that works with popular fitness trackers such as Apple Watch and FitBit to actively promote a healthy lifestyle and reward Manulife’s customers who lead a healthy lifestyle with real financial incentives. The concept is simple and elegant. The more exercise you do, the cheaper your insurance becomes. By positively promoting a healthy lifestyle through a delightful digital user experience, without the need of length legal jargons, Manulife is able to turn around its negative connotations of insurance provider into a positive on-going relationship building experience.

What in your life influenced you to pursue a career shaping brands through user experience, and how, with the perspective of hindsight, would you use those personal experiences differently today?

Bo Zou: I’ve always been interested in both science and art since my early childhood. It was only natural for me to pursue a career that merges the strengths of science, technology, art and design to create positive human experiences. So far, it has been very fulfilling and exciting to help brands on a global scale realise the importance of user experience in their business operations and apply a human centred approach to every aspect of their organizations.

In the financial services industry, for example, many of the world’s leading banks and insurance companies are still very antiquated with legacy systems and rigid operational models, making it very difficult for effective digital transformation. As a result of this, banking and financial services, along with educational and health services, are still the top essential service areas that are not accessible to a vast human population around the world. According to a recent World Bank research, we still have over 2.5 billion people around the world that do not have access to banking services, making it difficult for them to build and manage businesses, grow wealth and expand their prosperities for generations to come.

Applying user experience design principles to help transform the financial services industry to make banking and insurance accessible for all through leading digital technologies has always been a key driver of my career path.

In the coming years, I would like to devote more of my time and effort in helping connect a multi-disciplinary business ecosystem and working with major financial brands and small startups through digital transformation and innovation to bring accessible banking to the unbanked.

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Young Upstarts is a business and technology blog that champions new ideas, innovation and entrepreneurship. It focuses on highlighting young people and small businesses, celebrating their vision and role in changing the world with their ideas, products and services.

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