Sneaking into people’s lives and admitting it

Once upon a time there was a mobile company who wanted to improve people’s lives (and their bottom line) by offering some amazing relevant and useful services. In order to do that, they decided to do some extensive research to ask customers what kind of information and services they’d like to have on their mobiles.
The customers were happy to be consulted. They filled questionairs and came into the discussion room to talk about their problems and what they needed to make things better. They got excited with the prospect o having updated train times, shopping lists, and news handy so they could organize their hectic urban lives on the go.

The well-intentioned mobile company took that on board and prioritized their product development with renewed confidence. A few months later, they launched their wap portal with lots of useful services.

The design and product teams watched traffic stats anxiously, looking to validate their hard work. But the stats were just weird. People were not accessing train times and news as expected. Instead, they were going crazy for things like nude, awful quality animated gifs (this was long ago) and clunky apps like mobile chat, which defied usability and common sense at the time. And yet, the revenue was coming from those.

What’s the moral of the story?
Customer/design research cannot make all the hard decisions for you or eliminate risk totally.  Innovation should be user-centric, but for it to happen there has to be some experimentation and the will to go out of your comfort zone with some calculated risk.

Often the best test ground for innovation is life and not the research lab. Traditional quantitative and lab qualitative research is useful, but for innovation purposes it might mean testing within what we already know or suspect, and having interesting insights filtered out through what users pre-judge as being important. I’m more convinced by the minute that observational and contextual research techniques like ethnography, where you observe people in action, in context and their environment, has the potential to surprise and shows us opportunities which would not be otherwise be articulated in a lab.

But we should pick these insights to inspire and differentiate, and not just to cover ourselves. A bit of courage often pays off.


To App or not to App

I’ve wanted to write about this for a while, and reading this article in the Guardian about the fading novelty of news apps for the iPad got me thinking. I have frequent discussions with clients and industry colleagues about the suitability of the closed app format for everything.

Everyone wants to be on the Apple or Android app stores for “positioning” reasons. Marketeers love imagining their logo sitting permanently on the tablet’s main screen. But applications are expensive things to build, need to be heavily customised for different platforms, have hurdles for quick fixes and updates. Your customers won’t download your app just because you’ve built it, or even because they love your brand. Or they might even download it along with dozens of other free apps which they install and hardly use.

I see apps as a possible solutions for certain customer offerings. But you need to define the offering and the value to your customer and your business. And sorry, an App it’s not an offering in itself, let alone a mobile strategy.

The downloadable app format gives you an incredible array of interaction possibilities, which are great for tools, games, social networking and resources which people are going to use often, demanding rich functionality, willing to take the time to discover the cool new interaction possibilities you’ve worked so hard on. But sometimes the best solution for sites offering mostly web content is surprisingly… the web – customised for different mobile platforms of course.

Define the service offering, assess the value, then decide on the technology, interaction and presentation.


Service heroes

One of the main challenges of conducting a holistic service experience design project is that your client is very likely to be a person. A person in an ocean of corporation.

Service/customer touchpoints are almost never the responsibility of one team or individual. Take Telco A for instance: grossly simplifying things, there are VPs and divisions for everything: products, services, marketing, consumer, B2B, customer services, design, retail, IT, real estate, logistics, engineering,  maintenance sub-contractors, procurement…
OK, corporations need to organise their ocean of people and activities into manageable parts, but usually they end up with lots of self-contained puddles which don’t network very well.

But customers, oblivious to this complexity, see only BRAND and SERVICE.

It’s no good to invest on a new brand campaign if your customer-services are done by some careless contracting company, not aligned with your brand values. It’s no good pushing your customers towards self-service if your digital channels are badly designed and inefficient. All the touchpoints need to be aligned and complement each other, as they are “the company” in the eyes of your customer after all.

There is where you, CEO, need a champion. If it can be yourself, even better. But you need empowered service champions who can can make sure your vision survives the messiness of divisions, hierarchies and P&L structures which discourage people to have common objectives.

For us, customer experience designers, there is nothing more rewarding than seeing our concepts implemented. But beyond our contribution, it is this strong champion (or champions) from the ranks of our client who will make it a reality.


Starbucks service experience map

You might not like Starbucks coffee (I don’t) but this service experience map shows that the quality of the coffee is nearly irrelevant when you consider what happens when customers visit their shops. The opportunities and risks are all in the service. From the Little Springs Design blog


On cooking and multitasking

Multitasking at work is a lot like cooking. If you do some minimum planning you can decide on a recipe, shop for the ingredients and do a simple mental schedule: chop the vegetables while the oven heats, put the rice to boil, call your mother while the chicken roasts, dress the salad in the last minute.

I’m no time management expert, but I’ve learned that multitasking is possible with:
– Some predictability: you can estimate how much exclusive attention a task requires and how much time you need to get it done.
Planning: to organise multiple tasks together, you need to figure out waiting times and active times (can you eat and whistle at the same time?) – in the end of which you’ll have an idea of how much time you need in total.
Experience: the more experience you have the less time you need to get things right – experience also improves your ability to improvise.

The problem with this neat recipe is that it assumes you will be left in peace to fulfill your clever plan without unexpected extra tasks and distractions. Is it ever like this in real life? Perhaps you can handle one interruption (the bell rings while you are basting the chicken), but when your dinner guest calls in the last minute to say his date is a vegetarian, you’ll need:
a good sense of humor
cold blood
pure luck: got anything in the fridge to knock up a quick veggie dish?

But if you have some wisdom and experience, you’ll use all you power of improvisation… to order a pizza.  And thinking ahead, you’ll make sure the pizza is served cold so perhaps your friend learns to be a bit more considerate next time 😉


Online creatures and their mean ecosystems

As I read the article – Gmail users tweet twice as much – I remember that a couple of months ago someone said during a nice girlie lunch: If a guy gives me a Hotmail email address I’ll probably lose interest, – which was followed by supportive nods of agreement. I learned that Gmail is to be expected. Yahoo might be tolerated.
Wow, talk about strict standards. I agree that Hotmail as a brand doesn’t add points to anyone’s cool factor, but then I wouldn’t go as far as shipping them to social Siberia.

But wait, I forgot to mention that my friends and I are a generation apart – and it shows. Whilst most of my social ecosystem grew under zero influence of the internet and is therefore agnostic to online social codes, to my friends there is no such clear line. Their online and offline personas are bundled together, and increasingly their cultural codes, references, brand preferences (and prejudices) are generated online.

Fair enough, my girlie lunch friends and I all work in the internet industry and thus are fickle early adopters. But from the research we do I get the impression that this is getting more widespread. What do you think?


The geek and the burglar

Twitter, Facebook, etc. have really tapped into our needs of social catharsis, showing off and voyeurism. These obviously win over our privacy and self-protection instincts. What’s wrong with us? Can’t we help sharing our every step, thought and whereabouts?

It might be an age thing – I try being selective with the people I  allow into my network, but according to British insurance and investment management firm Legal & General, 13% of Facebook users and 92% of Twitter users tend to accept followers requests without checking them up.  And according to web security firm Sophos research shows that 41% per cent of people display personal and private information to complete strangers on Facebook, such as their date of birth, where they worked, where they lived and what they were doing. The result is that naive social network users may face higher insurance prices and limited coverage in case of burglary.

And speaking of naivety and robbery, I just love this story of the burglar who had to check his Facebook profile still at the crime scene, forgot to logout and got caught. Couldn’t help it the sad geek.


Easy on the eye, easy on the brain

Dom Phillips has just published an article for the FT.com showing that readership of tabloids in Brazil is soaring – despite the Internet –  at a time that most of the newspaper industry is bleeding.

I’m not going into the prejudices which come to my mind when I think of regular tabloid readers. But the article made me think about what makes some formats so successful.

Entertainment hungry, low attention span, uninterested in deep reflection.  I’m not describing tabloid readers, I’m talking about most of us Internet users. The way people read paper tabloids have a lot in common with the way we consume information on the web. In fact, tabloids need to change very little from print to online versions. Compare the paper version of The Sun with their website or even their iPhone app, for instance.

User-experience professionals have known this for a long time. Fat headlines, bite size text, picture rich, attention grabbing editorial style has been the norm and let’s admit, a reference of best practice (we scan – we don’t read, etc.)

All in the name of usability – or we are all closet tabloid fans!


For the love of travel

iwannagothere.comAs many of us who like our travels to be a personal and original experience, Maria Martinez discovered that recommendations by word-of-mouth from friends and fellow travellers often hit the spot much better than those from traditional paper travel guides.  So she, along with Blat and Manuel Muñoz, decided to create iwannagothere.com, a new site which brings people together to exchange travel tips, experiences and gather information to plan their next trip.

I do a lot of travel research on the web and on iwannagothere.com I find it particularly helpful that you can cross-reference the recommendations and the profile of the people writing them – you can see other places they have been to and liked.  This way you can check if they are genuine and find the best match for your interests and tastes.

They also have a growing team of local contributors willing to share their gems and help you to stay away from tourist traps.

I’ll be posting on Sao Paulo soon.


Social software – fashion and fear in the corporate world

We like to look good, but sometimes when people consciously decide to be fashionable, disaster strikes. I’ve been there. Those clothes in the depths of my wardrobe and my credit card bill won’t let me forget.

Technology moves through fashions too. Companies want to be modern and hate the idea of being left behind. Social media is seen as the new black in the corporate world. But actually, social media should really be seen as the new canary yellow –  great colour, but it doesn’t go with everything.

We have frequent discussions with clients from every sector who feel they must adopt social tools but fear losing control over the message. I think we shouldn’t be discussing social software in the first place, we should be talking about who they are, their corporate culture, their market and who they want to be in the future – realistically.

Forget about labels and focus on business objectives
. How can social software and user participation contribute to those objectives? Which tools and features are justified? What are the risks? Are they manageable? How are we going to measure success?

This presentation from Bond Art + Science is focused on media, but it’s tactical insights can be applied to other types of organisations willing to adopt and adapt social conversation to their business goals. One size does not fit all.