Design Chats

Ruth Frank of Pitney Bowes on why you should ask more questions

4 min read
Scott Kirkwood
  •  Sep 27, 2018
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Tech has changed shopping—which means it’s also changed shipping.

Years ago, people thought of Pitney Bowes as the company that manufactured the postage meter in the mailroom. Today, things are different. The organization still helps thousands of businesses mail millions of items every year, but recent digital transformations have changed the company itself.

One example: Pitney Bowes’ fulfillment work with Allbirds shoes simplifies returns and gives customers more control; thanks to a more transparent process, Allbirds has seen a 30% drop in customer support calls while dramatically cutting its shipping and labor costs.

And the postage meter? It’s been transformed into high-tech tools like the SendPro C-Series, which makes it easy to select the best shipment option for every parcel and letter without even grabbing a tape measure—an innovation that earned the products an International Design Award in 2017.

Ruth Frank (far right) celebrates a design system launch with members of the Pitney Bowes executive team

Ruth Frank, VP for Client and User Experience at Pitney Bowes, has been with the company for 13 years, long enough to see the 100-year-old organization expand its roles into tech and ecommerce.

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First off, how did you get to your current role?

It all started with my interest in what motivates people and their relationships with each other, their personal and work environments, and how technology and design can enable better collaboration, outcomes, and experiences.

My education included courses in psychology, and I was fortunate to enter the working world when technology and digital experiences were taking off and transforming many industries. I’ve worked in aviation (the pilot side and the passenger side), the retail industry, and now I’m driving a client-centered mindset into the digital transformation at Pitney Bowes.

Bringing cross-functional insights to building personas

Do you remember if there was a specific moment where you realized you should become a designer?

As I was pursuing psychology in college, I was starting to work with companies, and began to realize just how much time people spend at work and how complex it could be. I became very interested in enabling a better work experience and better outcomes for those companies. People use tools and systems at work, and there’s a ton of person-to-person interaction, so we could be more intentional about creating great work environments.

Related: Hacking usability with psychological principles

Initially, this wasn’t specific to UX or UI—it was just, what’s the right environment? How do we get those kinds of work experiences where people are engaged, and contributing, and love coming to work, love what they do and are supported in all these different ways that that would be worthwhile?

I think that was a point in time when I thought, “Okay, instead of going into the traditional counseling, therapist, psychiatrist route, I would like to take it in this direction.” I started getting involved with the role of technology, because that can be such an enabler, or it can be a huge frustration. From working with highly trained operators of complicated systems like pilots to consumers who are time-pressed and need to be able to get something done quickly with no training, I’ve realized over time that designers play a key role in understanding the people in the technology ecosystem and by reducing complexity, we can make a big impact in a better outcome or a better day.

The product team collaborates to build a low-fidelity prototype

Tell us a little bit about your current position at Pitney Bowes.

I’m working with my team to drive the company’s client and user experience practice, which has been building up over the last five years in a purposeful way. It’s an amazing and tremendously talented team. We’re focused on five key things:

  1. Articulating the client experience strategy for the company and enabling teams to deliver excellent experiences to all of our global markets
  2. Building and maturing a design system to drive consistency, efficiencies, and best practices on a modern technology stack
  3. Hiring and developing strong talent to enable a client-centered mindset and design-driven culture
  4. Driving design thinking across the organization
  5. Through globalization, deliver those same great experiences across the globe in all of our markets

“InVision helps get the conversation going and establishes a central place to evolve an idea to a full-blown prototype ready for development.”

Ruth Frank
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What does a typical day look like for you?

A typical day includes learning about some of our key clients and establishing strategies within each of our three business areas: Commerce, SMB, and Software Solutions. In an ideal day, I would have time for hands-on work with our clients, learning about their business goals and their customers’ needs.

I also spend a lot of time socializing and evangelizing the work that our team is doing (especially related to the client experience initiative), sharing stories, and building community around the practices of UX and CX.

How is your design team set up?

It’s a hybrid of embedded staff and centralized teams. We have 45 members of the Client and User Experience Group overall, of which 30 are focused on one of three distinct business units (funded by those units but reporting centrally). The central teams drive strategy for Client Experience, Globalization, and Design System.

Teams within business units have regular meetings with key stakeholders and spend plenty of time with clients gaining insights, testing out design system patterns. We have a great culture around in-the-moment feedback at Pitney Bowes to ensure clarity and alignment around goals, and we all communicate a lot—at lunch and learns, via Slack, and at other get-togethers.

The team applies design thinking to the escape room experience

Giving good, actionable feedback is something many of us struggle with. What can we learn from the way your team gives feedback?

We’re looking at getting away from the traditional rating scales and instead having ongoing continuous feedback. It’s something that’s valuable in every part of the company, every level—feedback can come from anywhere.

“When people stop giving you feedback, that’s really when you should be concerned.”

Ruth Frank
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For designers, I tend to give feedback less so about specific design outcomes or approach or details and more around how to influence and collaborate. I talk about what’s gone really well or where, retrospectively, things could have led to a better outcome.

I think you have to look at feedback as a gift. When people stop giving you feedback, that’s really when you should be concerned. When people are giving you feedback, they’re taking the time to do so, and that’s because they believe in you and want you to be successful. That’s a good thing.

Pitney Bowes has been around for almost 100 years. How has the company been impacted by digital transformation?

We invented an industry in our first century, and now we’re transforming that business to become a model of success for clients across a wide range of industries by reducing the complexity of commerce.

Through reinvention, acquisition, and embracing a startup mindset, we’ve become a fundamentally different company. We’ve changed our brand identity, transitioned our go-to market with creative channels that did not exist before, and launched groundbreaking products like the SendPro C-Series.

We’ve created a new open digital platform—the Pitney Bowes Commerce Cloud—that allows us to deliver entirely different types of value to our clients in a modern way, leveraging design, data science, and the cloud.

“When you’re confronted with a tough design choice, ask more questions.”

Ruth Frank
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Collaboration is key in all phases of design and development

You mentioned changing your brand identity. What makes for a really strong brand, and how does design play into that?

It’s all about clarity. When a brand is strong, you know exactly what they stand for. They don’t try to be everything or a ton of things—they know what they’re good at, and they go after that. And they also make decisions about what they’re not going to be as good at.

That clarity translates to consumers and the external world, and consistency is essential. So you can be very clear, but if you’re not consistent and delivering that every time you touch your partners, your customers, your investors, your users, then the brand is weakened.

Related: The value of consistent design

So a strong, good brand has clarity, is consistent, and delivers value. It’s something that resonates, and people want to return to it.

Design is critical to translating the brand into those touchpoints, many of which are digital. At one level, we can achieve consistency adoption of a design system based on principles aligned to our brand, and including guidance for logo treatment, use of color, font and appropriate tone of voice.

More deeply, we think about brand in terms of experiences from our clients’ point of view. Design is an important part of that and helps ensure that we understand what our customers expect and deliver on that through purposeful design activities.

How does your team partner with engineering and product?

First off, we work to build trust and collaboration by humbly asking a lot of questions with our partners from those teams. By “humbly,” I mean that we see our colleagues as well as ourselves as focused on doing the right thing the right way for our clients. They bring diverse perspectives and we all know how to do their jobs well—we see our job as collaborating and partnering with them.

We ask questions that spark great conversation and illuminate areas where there might be gaps in our collective team knowledge: “Who are our users? How do we know they want this feature? How do we know they’d use it at their desktop vs. their mobile device?” Then we partner to find out the answers together.

When the inevitable trade-offs have to be made, we keep the broader goals of the program in mind and together make the right choices for our clients and for the business.

“We see our job as designers is collaborating and partnering with others.”

Ruth Frank
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To build trust across teams, we meet regularly and use the same communication tools to keep a conversation going: We use tools like Slack, Skype for business, and email to share documents, client insights, videos, pictures, and updates. We also collocate with our teams—constantly seeing and talking to each other builds a mutual trust and understanding of the unique value the UX team brings to other areas of the business.

InVision is another tool we use. We use it for lots of different things, but all have the same goal: visually communicating an answer. Whether it’s a marketing analysis, sketches on a whiteboard, concepts, or a working prototype, InVision helps get the conversation going and establishes a central place to evolve an idea to a full-blown prototype ready for development.

What’s your best advice for young designers?

Design is a team sport.Twitter Logo Collaboration is essential to fully understanding your users and to seeing opportunities to create great experiences for them. And don’t forget to engage your cross-functional team to co-create and leverage the diversity of ideas and expertise. Your design needs to solve a business problem and be implementable too.

Don’t get discouraged when you’re not sure what to do. When you’re confronted with a tough design choice, ask more questions.

The ability to listen to a user is often a designer’s greatest skill.

Be curious. A passion for learning is your path to success—and always remember that inspiration can come from the unlikeliest of sources.

Want to work on the Pitney Bowes design team? They’re hiring! View and apply for open positions here.

Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard