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Firebox: Being the First UX Designer

Posted 4 years ago by Naomi Francis

Remember the Shot Glass Chess Set? That was created by Tom Boardman & Michael Smith, owners of Firebox. Their infamous Chess Set spiraled into the idea of an online retail store with the mission of helping people find gifts, even when they’re not sure what they’re looking for. 17 years on and Firebox has survived all the bursts and the recessions that the economy has thrown at them, proving that the people love shopping for the unusual.

Firebox, like many other companies, has come to understand the importance of the user journey and made some big steps to improve their user experience. Their UX Designer, Lewis Healey, has worked on over 20 projects since joining in August 2015 and has been helping to push Firebox further away from its previously ‘ladd-y’ culture and into more of a serious shop. In a company of 35 people, bar Christmas when it shoots up to a head count of 50, Lewis is currently the only web designer and the first UX designer they’ve employed.

From his log-cabin inspired UX room at Firebox’s London HQ, equipped with it’s own chalkboard wall, Lewis talks to me about his varied role and how he uses Marvel to improve Firebox’s customer journey.

“The Web Designer is almost dead. You need to find a specialism.”

So, you’re Firebox’s first UX Designer…

I am! The Creative Director was a designer but he left shortly after I joined. Strangely, I’m the only web designer but we are looking to grow the team slowly. I’ve been pulling in some of the Graphic Designers and dedicating some time to training them up in web design and pull them in with a little UX.

What does a regular day look like for you?

It’s extremely varied, I’m lucky to have a lot of autonomy in my role. It does really depend on the main tasks that have been set but I have a lot of freedom to investigate and problem solve. We have an incredible reporting system where we have access to an unbelievable amount of data and insights.

For example, I ran an experience audit on our website on mobile because for the first time our mobile sales surpassed desktop sales. Christmas is crunchtime and also very much around the corner, so we need to dedicate time to preparing our mobile experience.

What was it that drew you to UX?

After my interest in Web Design really grew, I noticed that nobody really employs Web Designers anymore – it’s mainly just Engineers and Developers. It’s almost like you need to find a specialism because the Web Designer is almost dead.

Now, they’re split up into UX Designers, Product Designers and Back-End or Front-End Engineers. So I thought, I can’t just be a Web Designer I need to decide on one of these. After some self analysis, I realised I really like qualitative and quantitative data, data driven design and figuring out problems from these numbers. So, UX design is perfect for me because I’m quite logical. So, I just went for it and applied for a couple of UX jobs!

Lewis explains that whilst he was studying Multimedia Technology at University, he actually hated Web Design, finding it limiting and frustrating that there were changes you had to make for designs to fit into the different browsers. Fast forward a few years and he flipped a 180, falling in love with the ever evolving aspect of web design and the way that the industry has changed into a more free and creative place. Trained and experienced in a range of design software, Lewis has been using Marvel throughout his career to streamline his design process.

When presenting his ideas and designs to the Managing Director and Chief Technical Officer, Lewis uses Marvel to demonstrate the user journey. This method shares what the idea would look like without having to spend months developing it, so Lewis can get rid of any problems before they actually occur.

Tell us a little bit about why and how you use Marvel?

I actually used Marvel in one of my previous companies and have used it personally for quite a while now. I really like that it’s proof of concept, so you can carry out usability tests before you actually build anything, which is priceless really because you can just save so much time. It’s really useful for communicating with stakeholders, getting them onboard and selling my designs and ideas. Rather than just showing them a bunch of static imagery, I can actually use Marvel to show how the flow works.

Marvel has a really clean design and I also love that you’re just down the road. Not that I would just pop in or anything but I kind of feel like I’m supporting London. I’ve followed Murat from the beginning and really bought into Marvel’s great story.

How has it benefitted the business?

It helps me solve problems. Marvel is involved in my day to day process, where I will watch our users through various tools, then go into Marvel or Sketch to find a solution and finally I’ll A/B test that. Marvel was actually the bloodline of improving our conversion rate and making us more money.
It’s imperative now to use Marvel for the developers because they use it as a reference point. Rather than just having a load of images in a folder, they can actually click through and see how the idea works and that really helps our development. It makes them more efficient as it’s more streamlined and more visual for them than a long brief or handover.

The ever evolving industry of web design keeps Lewis inspired. With so many new technologies which have been and are being created. Like React, the new technology that Facebook have made based on Javascript. People can now get incredibly good at design at the base level, which just encourages him to step up his game. “Technology is getting so advanced these days people can solely create legitimate businesses from their bedrooms. Coding a web app in React for example, you can reformat it into other native platforms easier than it has been ever before.”

The fact you can do really well straight away is inspiring for me, you never know everything with Web Design or Coding.

“With Web Design or Coding, you never know it all and you can never be the best.”

What has been one of your biggest challenges?

In this company, one of my biggest challenges has been educating people about User Experience. Testing short term UX is obviously beneficial but the heart of the challenge at the moment is getting people onboard with long term UX goals. In order to see substantial growth in conversion rates, we need to take a holistic approach. It’s not about the quick wins, but more about making a long term improvement in our entire multi-channel experience.

It takes a lot of meetings, chats and presentations to get departments & stakeholders onboard, but once we started seeing results month-on-month, staff were more receptive to the benefits of long term UX planning.

I mean, I’m still trying to figure it out as well. I have some inklings of how to improve our overall experience and how to help people find a gift and hopefully convert better but there is no clear picture yet, it’s an ever evolving idea that will be optimised over time.

What’s been your favourite project?

The Checkout. The thing about my job that I love is that sometimes as a designer you’ll design something and it’s out there and you don’t really have a chance to amend it. Two months down the line you’re like, “Oh, what if!” and, “That could have been better!”.

“With UX design you keep going back & iterating because you constantly need to improve & test.”

The checkout has been great to work on because the first version I put out there had a lot of mistakes and I’ve learned from that. I’m now able to see how users behave on the checkout and that’s actually helping me design other parts of the website. So I know that when they’re going to this checkout page, they’re in this mindset, so I need to kind of adhere to the previous step. It’s definitely a project I’m starting to get proud of.

As a result of driving more focus on UX, Firebox’s year-on-year and month-on-month conversion rates are up, showing that the short term effects of UX are not only working but are also incredibly beneficial for the business. Lewis adds that there are usually three months set to a project in design, the acceleration that Marvel provides has allowed for him to smash through a series of 20+ projects and arrive at the bad ideas quick enough to make room for the good ones.

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