I think it’s essential that you do two things: you bring your ideas quickly to reality, as quickly as possible, and you make your ideas as small as possible, so they are achievable.
Bo Zou is a Toronto-based digital veteran, brand expert, and user experience (UX) specialist. After completing his undergraduate studies in China, Bo earned two master’s degrees from the University of London and City University in London, one concentrating on human-computer interaction with ergonomics, and the second, focusing on visual arts and arts criticism.
Bo Zou is the founder of experience design studio, BOZ UX, and has more than fifteen years of experience in developing and executing user experience strategy and design through a range of digital channels. He has led user experience design work in engagements with companies that include Citibank, Scotiabank, Manulife, Fidelity, AMEX, Nissan/Infiniti, Molson Coors, Ikea, Toshiba, Microsoft, Unilever, Best Buy and Pfizer.
As part of his work around the intersection of technology and user experience design, Bo Zou is a passionate and active advocate around the ability for blockchain technology to improve banking access to those who are currently underserved by traditional banking systems. He is a strong believer that through the blockchain and smart user experience design, the more than 2 billion unbanked people around the world can gain access to much needed financial services.
Where did the idea for BOZ UX come from?
For most of my career in the user experience space, I’ve worked with larger agencies that have hundreds of offices around the world. However, I really see the future of user experience and technology work being around smaller sized companies. That’s because smaller sized companies are able to provide a leaner, more agile approach. That, in turn, allows for these businesses to complete projects faster and with a smaller budget and with more flexibility.
User experience is an essential element of any company’s digital transformation. The majority of companies today are going through digital transformation one way or the other, from their customer relationship layer to their operational layer to their business model layer, and user experience design is essential in this transformation. This is really the essence of why I created the design studio, BOZ UX.
However, from my experience, it’s the smaller players, the startups, who are able to more easily transform digitally and apply smart user experience. In this way, I think the digital transformation has become a great democratizer; it’s levelling the playing field somewhat between larger corporations and smaller businesses.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I’m an early morning person, so I normally start my day around 7 o’clock by catching up on emails. Believe it or not, there are hundreds of emails that reach my inbox while I’m sleeping. If I get less than 20 overnight, I consider that a lucky day. I go through all of my emails. Some of them I forward to my other colleagues, others I have to deal with myself. This takes up the first half of my morning.
Then, because I work with a global team and have clients around the world, the rest of my day is usually staggered with conference calls where we are discussing different projects. In the evening, I make time for myself, which usually means having dinner or going for a walk or listening to some jazz music.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I believe that 99%, if not more, of the ideas in the world never come to life. Everybody has a great idea sometime in their life. I’m the same way – I always have new ideas. But I think it’s essential that you do two things: you bring your ideas quickly to reality, as quickly as possible, and you make your ideas as small as possible, so they are achievable.
I’m a pragmatic person. Of course I like big ideas, but I typicality will break big ideas down to smaller ideas and make them actually practical and executable. Something that I always practice is what we call MVP, which is an acronym for Minimum Viable Product. The same concept can apply to ideas: Minimum Viable Idea. So if you have a grand vision or big, ambitious idea, make sure you break it down into smaller, more manageable minimum viable ideas, and see if that’s something that you can actually achieve within a week or month or three months. I don’t think you should plan a grand vision that cannot be achieved within 6 months because the world just changes too fast now.
What’s one trend that excites you?
One trend that really excites me is how the world is becoming increasingly democratized by technology. As I’ve mentioned earlier, the smaller players, the startups, actually have better competitive advantages against bigger corporations. So, for example, blockchain technology. Blockchain technology allows micro financing, as well as peer-to-peer transactions and peer-to-peer sharing, without any centralized bank or centralized corporations, or even government intervention. That’s really exciting to me because this technology empowers every individual. In many ways, everybody now is on the same footing and we’re able to contribute to the larger good as individuals.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I travel a lot. I think as an entrepreneur, the most important thing, apart from your executive and management capabilities, is to have a holistic vision. We are living in a globalized, connected world, and it’s important to go and see for yourself what is happening in every corner of the world. That’s what I do a lot. And every time I travel, I learn something new. Whether that’s from the people, the culture, the location itself – it really inspires me and helps shape my ideas for the better.
What advice would you give your younger self?
The advice I would give my younger self is to not be afraid of change. Change for the majority of people, myself included, seems to be something that is quite daunting. We always feel more comfortable staying on course. That’s what I did. I stayed on the same trajectory for a good decade or decade and a half. If I had started my own business sooner, I think I would be further ahead. So, I would tell my younger self to embrace change, don’t be afraid of it.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
The one thing I would say is, disasters are good. A lot of people give up when they face a disaster or some sort of crisis. I think that is normal. But, I learned from my parents that disasters can actually be good for you. That’s because essentially they open new possibilities. In life, when one door closes, it always opens a couple new doors.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
As an entrepreneur, I regularly go back to the roots of why I started anything. I do that over and over again, no matter how established or how successful my business or venture is. A lot of times this process helps me rethink and reposition myself and my business.
Of course, we all have business plans and roadmaps and visions of how our businesses should be. But nobody really knows what the market is like three years down the road. We don’t even know what the market is like 6 months down the road, let alone three or five years. When you start your business, you have this trajectory or goal of where you want your business to be. That’s something that, for sure, will change. So as things change, whether that be environments or culture, you will have to go back to the very beginning and reposition yourself in order to make your business competitive and viable.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
I already touched on that somewhat. One strategy is to stay lean and agile. There are many ways to keep your business lean, that includes dividing your organization into smaller project parts, so to speak, or project groups, where people focus and almost embrace a mentality of a startup business.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
I think every entrepreneur will face the same challenge throughout their career, and I had the same challenge, which is, people, actually. I can’t stress enough how important people are to your business. A business is comprised of people. And a lot of times, when you start small, you don’t have access to the best talent in the market. You work with whoever you can find. A lot of times, it’s not the right people for your business. The vision or skill set is not aligned and you have to make quick decisions.
I definitely had some failures in terms of finding people to join my business, especially during its early stages. To overcome that, you have to be very upfront, transparent, and professional about it. And you have to make decisions quickly, so that you can eventually find the right people for your business.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
So this is actually a public idea now, because I’m actually running a petition about it, I’m working actively to merge two areas of expertise. One is the blockchain technology. The other is user experience.They come together by opening up banking services to populations that are currently unbankable. Blockchain is the ledger of all cryptocurrency transactions. But blockchain is not the only thing that is needed, in my opinion, specifically when we talk about improving banking access. What is also needed is strong, smart user experience design to make the process of actually using blockchain-driven currencies understandable and easy to use. I’m actively working to develop a strategic roadmap around how we can use the blockchain, along with user experience design, to finally bring banking and financial services to those who are underserved in the developing world. In fact, I’ve created a petition around the cause that you can access and support here – https://www.change.org/p/bo-zou-improve-banking-access-to-the-underserved.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
The best $100 I recently spent was a flight from Hong Kong to Indonesia. It was a weekend getaway. The $100 got me from a very developed world to a very developing world, and what I witnessed was quite exciting. Even though Indonesia is still a developing country and has a lot of issues, including poverty, I witnessed a growing trend of the adoption of new technology. Pretty much everybody, from kids to adults to older people, has a smartphone. And everybody is using technology in their lives.
For example, I was taking a motorbike taxi in the streets of Jakarta, and they actually have a similar service like Uber. I could simply order a motorbike taxi from my phone. That was immensely surprising for me as a user experience designer because I can see the fast adoption of technology in the developing country and the potential business opportunities in that part of the world.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?
I would say WeChat. The majority of the Western business world is not very familiar with WeChat. In the Eastern world and the Chinese-speaking world, as well as the growing population in the Arab world and southeast Asia, everybody has a WeChat account. It’s better than exchanging a name or business card. Instead of exchanging business cards, we simply scan a QR code and you’re connected. Through WeChat, we can have conference calls, voice messages, share files; we can complete collaborative projects and we can even build ecommerce websites. It’s hugely powerful, and we can integrate everything that we need in one single app. So that’s something I use on a day-to-day basis with all my team members, as well as clients.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
One book that I always keep with me when I travel is The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. I don’t know if Americans have read that book, but it’s written by Ray Kurzweil. There’s a lot of worthwhile predictions in the book. It’s strikingly accurate in terms of what’s happening in the world today. Even though, I guess, the way that Ray Kurzweil wrote the book was a bit pessimistic. I’m more of a optimistic person, but I think what’s being predicted in that book, including artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, so on and so forth, all of that will serve as warning signs and signposts for us as entrepreneurs.
What is your favorite quote?
My favorite quote is actually in Latin, and if you translate it in English, it’s “Through adversity to the stars.” “Per ardua ad astra.” That is my favorite quote because that is essentially what I believe in. If your life is smooth sailing, then you probably won’t go too far. But if you actually have challenges and hardships, it will strengthen you as a person and bring you to new doors of opportunity.
- Continue to understand the importance of executable ideas; as exciting as large, ambitious ideas are, they need to be segmented and divided into smaller, more manageable Minimum Viable Ideas.
- The power of traveling and seeing new cultures first-hand cannot be underestimated. Travel is absolutely necessary to create a truly global citizen and business leader.
- Challenge and adversity should not be feared. They are in fact the keys that allow entrepreneurs to open new doors of possibility.
- Return and return yet again to the original inspiration and idea for your business – this helps you rethink and reposition your business in a climate that is fast-paced and rapidly changing.