Sunday, July 31, 2011

Capitalizing on Consumer Behavior

I read a brief article on consumer behavior that got me to thinking: how is it possible, in a broadcast medium such as the Web, to consider the personality and motivation of a specific buyer? It's easy enough to understand how these ideas would be applied to direct sales - a face-to-face selling situation provides the salesman with the ability to read a person and adapt the way in which he pitches the product to the personality and motivation of the prospect. But on the Internet, a single interface communicates product information to all buyers.

I have a sense that certain firms collect enough information about their users to make an educated guess: a bookstore would likely be able to sort out a person's personality relatively easy, and to some degree the same could be done with any entertainment product (music, videos, etc. all are categories where the user's consumption provides strong hints); a retailer who sells a wide variety of merchandise; or a credit card company (which cannot detect the items, but the retailers should provide sufficient evidence to make a reasonable estimate).

Even a niche retailer might have a sense of its demographic, and in some instances be able to formulate a fairly accurate estimation of the way in which its particular body of customers is skewed. And the fact that certain kinds of customers prefer certain retailers might lead a single firm to operate multipel storefronts that sell the same inventory, with different presentation styles to appeal to different market segments.

It's an interesting notion, and one that is not new to the online medium ... but the online medium does seem to provide certain facilities that would enable a single firm to more easily adapt its strategy to the needs of specific market segments in a more fluid and adaptable way than could be done in the brick-and-mortar or catalog channels.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Change Drives Technology

I read an astoundingly gormless blog post this morning: the author was expounding on the notion that technology drives change that transforms a culture, and she used the example of the Roman roads, insisting that the Roman Empire was able to expand to encompass all of Europe because there were roads over which they could move their armies and supplies. Without such a system of roads, the Romans would never have been able to build such a vast empire. Given the context of the post, this was not a misstatement, but a complete misinterpretation of historical fact.

Certainly, the road systems helped Rome maintain control: but it's far more plausible (and historically accurate) to suggest that the Roman empire expanded, then the roads were built. They may have helped Rome to maintain the lands it had conquered, and certainly facilitated the movement of men and materiel to its borders - but they did not exist beforehand: they did not enable Rome to expand, but were needed after Rome had already expanded.

In the context of the argument, and discussion of the topic in general, it is clear that technology does not drive change ... change drives technology.

Until a need exists, technology is of little value - it is a solution in search of a problem - and unless a need arises, the technology to serve that need is of no value at all. Arguably, technology can help people to find a way to do something they didn't think was possible, but it takes a whole lot of marketing dollars to teach them about the "needs" they do not recognize that they have.

The notion that "technology drives change" was one of the leading factors in the dot-com crash of a decade ago, and it's clear (from that blog post, and many others that take as premise the same notion in more subtle ways) that the lesson has not been entirely learned: technology that gives people a way to do something that they do not need to do is not likely to succeed, or to become transformational.

The transformation must come first, and technology will follow, to address the problems and needs that arise as a result of the transformation.

This is an important principle to keep in mind when considering the hype that surrounds any new development in technology: what existing need does it serve? Where there is a straightforward answer, the technology is likely to succeed. Where the promoters take the tactic of suggesting what new things it enables a person to do, without reference to their existing needs, it likely will not.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Tangling with Tyrants

I've posted reading notes on Tony Deblauwe's book, Tangling with Tyrants. The book is intended to serve as a guidebook for employees who are dealing with difficult bosses, but it's interesting in the context of any relationship in which there is an imbalance of power, and the individual in the advantaged position acts in a way that serves their short-term interest but damages the greater long-term value they (and their organization) might derive from a less parasitic relationship with the disadvantaged party.

The employee of a "tyrant" boss can be likened to the company that serves a petulant customer - though the nature of the relationship often seems inverted, there is a balance of power that should be considered: while companies will bend over backward to serve their customers because they provide the company with its income (just as an employee will suffer an abusive boss for the sake of a paycheck), there comes a point at which a customer demands more value from the vendor than the vendor is willing to give, in light of other customers who will pay a fair price and be less demanding. It's this notion that leads a firm to refuse to give any further service a customer who costs more to placate than the company derives in profit from serving them.

Aside of that, I was stricken by the notion that many employees who protest at the treatment they receive from their superiors often become bosses who inflict the same treatment upon their own subordinates when they rise to a given level of power and authority. That is, when the roles are reversed, there is a complete change of perspective.

This can be witnessed in instances in which a company stops serving its customers and begins attempting to control them. A retail store may cater to a customer up until the moment of sale, but the quality of the customer experience completely reverses itself when the customer seeks a refund for a product already purchased. Or a company whose product involves a term commitment, such as a health club or cell phone provider, has the customer "locked" into an agreement that compels him to pay regardless of whether he is satisfied with the service he receives. Or a company who is in a position of power due to the lack of options available to a customer, such as a utility company or a hospital emergency room.

The problem is similar in that the company who treats a customer poorly doesn't consider the benefit it derives from a more long-term relationship with a customer - it seeks to get all it can in the near term, maximizing profit or minimizing loss from immediate activities, rather than considering the potential lifetime value of the customer from being more service-oriented and attentive to the needs of the customer. As soon as other options are available - the term contract has ended or another provider enters a market - the customer leaves.

Ultimately, the answer isn't to perpetuate the power struggle between parties, but to seek a mutually beneficial relationship, with each party being reasonable about its demands of the other in light of the value it obtains in exchange. To do otherwise is to achieve a short-term gain at the sacrifice of a greater long-term one.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Collaborating with the SME

I've mixed feelings about a booklet I recently read that proposed to provide advice on Designer-SME Collaboration, primarily to designers. It was developed by the ASTD, an industry organization for professionals involved in developing training materials. I expected it would be skewed to that septic task, but might contain some information that's useful to user experience designers working with business SMEs.

On the positive side, it was in there: a basic process of defining roles, setting expectations, and managing the working relationship. It was perhaps a little too basic for anyone with much work experience, but a little refresher on the fundamentals is useful. And I suspect it is probably of greater value for someone who is just entering the profession from academia, who could benefit from a bit of practical advice.

But the drawback was that the author seemed entirely disdainful of subject matter experts. In defining "five types of SME," he covered the ones who are belligerent, feckless, disorganized, myopic, and self-serving. Not one example was provided of a sane and functional SME (and many do exist), though perhaps it's assumed that a person needs no training in working with people who are competent and right-minded.

However, the disdain didn't stop at that: the entire process of dealing with an SME was condescending and even at times plainly disingenuous, combining flattery with manipulation to herd an uneducated person with pedestrian experience into accepting the guidance and control of a more educated training professional.

This likely caters to the petty narcissism of the training professional, who is a pseudo-academic that likely finds himself resentful of the way he is marginalized in a corporate environment, but it does cast a pall over what might otherwise be accepted as sensible advice.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Dynamic Lead Generation System

A blog post I read about a month ago got my gears turning on an idea for a dynamic leads generation system, which modifies the information collection form based on the length of the work queue. It's one of those instances where I think I have some "good thoughts" about something I'll not likely be called upon to produce in the near future, so I'm dropping my working notes here in case I ever need them ...

The Notion

The post in question suggests, in an general way, that the number of questions on a lead generation form decreases the response rate, but increases the quality of the leads. The conclusion is that your sales force may be wasting a lot of time with unqualified leads if you don't ask enough questions, but not getting a sufficient number of leads if you ask too few.

I was a bit frustrated by the lack of detail - it's is a conclusion that most people can come to on their own, and without the facts to back it up, it's not of much use. So I dug a bit for some facts, and found there were none to be had. A few "sources" suggested that every question you add after three (name, e-mail, phone) decreases the number of leads generated by 25% - but don't provide any reference to the research that backs that claim.

Even so, I don't think it's an entirely unreasonable assertion or guess, and lacking hard numbers (plus, given the fact the numbers will vary according to the specific product being sold and the audience being marketed) , I'll go with it for now.

That said, this means that asking "just four simple questions" will decrease the number of leads by almost 70% - add flour more, and 90% of people who (arguably) would have submitted contact information will go away.

While there's something to be said for quality over quantity, my sense is that when you get to the point of throwing away 90% of interested prospects, you're likely cutting deeply into the number of qualified prospects.

And yes, this is also based on the assumption that the most qualified prospects are willing to answer a longer questionnaire than less qualified ones - but I don't think the two are necessarily connected. However, it would be logical to assert that the most eager/interested ones will suffer more in order to give you their contact information (though being eager and being qualified are two entirely separate things).

The Solution

The idea that occurred to me from this is for a dynamic lead-generation system that balances the number of questions on the lead generation form against the work queue for the staff who follows up on those leads.

The form would consist of a number of questions, ranked in order of importance. Let's say that the "default" form has four questions and generates 700 leads on a typical day, and that's about the number of leads that a sales staff of a given size can effectively work.

On a day when the traffic is low, fewer leads will come in and the staff will have idle time. If you drop the least important question, it will increase the number of leads (but decrease their quality) to make more productive use of spare time - they have the time to "waste" with less qualified leads (but given that some percentage of them will turn out to be good leads, it's not really a waste of time to work them, just less efficient).

On a day when the traffic is high, more leads will come in than the staff can handle. If you add an additional question to the form, it will decrease the number of leads (but increase their quality) to make more efficient use of scarce time - they don't have as much time to "waste" on less qualified leads and need to be focused on the better-quality ones.

The System

The system to implement the solution should be relatively straightforward: an automated script checks the length of the work queue and compares the number of leads waiting to be worked to the number of staff who are in the office (cross-reference against the number of staff "logged in" at the time) to determine whether the amount of work is too much or too little for the staff available to handle it.

Once that determination is made, the results are fed to the content management system that generates the form and instructs it to display more or fewer questions on the lead generation form, to adjust the number of leads that come in.

It should also be possible to monitor the system to check the question-to-lead ratio and adjust the algorithm accordingly: for example if the difference between having four questions and having five questions is less than a 25% decrease in leads generated, that can be considered. It could also be cross-referenced against call times to consider whether working a lead that has answered fewer questions takes more time than one that has answered more. And it could also check the basic assumption, to see if the close rate for individuals who have answered more questions is actually higher than those who answered fewer, though adjusting the questions would require a more organic process (a human being to consider what might be "wrong" with a given question and write a better one).

The Obstacles

There may be obstacles to implementing such a system. Three come to mind: greed, tyranny, and wastefulness.

A greedy company wants every lead it can get, regardless of whether the customer is qualified. More is better, and people can be browbeaten into buying something they don't really need. This is an ethical problem that technology cannot address.

A tyrannical company wants a limited staff to work unqualified leads. If the staff aren't producing more sales with more leads, they're just bad employees and need to be disciplined or fired. That's another ethical issue, shades of Glengarry Glen Ross.

A wasteful company will want to work every lead it gets, regardless of whether it is productive, and instead of whipping staff to work harder on bad leads, will hire additional staff to deal with the volume.

But at this point, I'm probably getting away from the notion of a technical solution and more into ethics and corporate culture. It's probably worth keeping, but grist for a more general meditation than the present one.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Employee Loyalty

I was reading a book on the topic of training, and a point the author mentioned in passing bears more consideration than it was given in context: that there is a greater need for training in the contemporary workplace than there had been twenty or thirty years ago because employees are prone to changing jobs more often. As such, a firm is faced with the problem of a constant influx of new employees to train.

I can't argue with the notion that employees change jobs more often - it's plain to see that this occurs, and the notion of "lifelong employment" that was once a given has now become so rare as to seem naive and absurd - but I do take umbrage at how casually the phenomenon is attributed to the employee - as if hopping from one workplace to another is a common practice because employees choose to leave.

This may be the case in some instances, and companies are fond of laying the blame on some external problem and making themselves out to be the victim of circumstances beyond their control. But in truth, they are lying in a bed that they made for themselves.

I have never heard of a single firm that suffered the sudden and unexpected exodus of 10,000 employees who all decided, of their own volition, to leave all at once. Yet there are numerous media reports of incidents in which companies have dismissed that many workers, and more, in a single stroke. In fact, a layoff of only ten thousand would be considered by journalist to be too small to be newsworthy.

And when these same employees bemoan the state of loyalty, it is clearly an act of avoidance - not only avoidance of the blame, but avoidance of the responsibility for dealing with the problems they have brought upon themselves. When the propaganda of denial has become so widespread that textbooks and training materials casually assert that "employees are prone to changing jobs," it rankles.

After dropping this bombshell with the mien of a nonchalant observation, the author goes on to suggest how important it is to train employees, early and well, so that they may be productive for the short time they will choose to remain with a firm. I would agree with this notion, except that it is merely addressing a symptom of a larger problem that cannot be so blithely dismissed.

I am generally not the type to play the "pity the workers" card, and I don't expect that any firm would or should put the welfare of its employees before that of its customers if it intends remain in business for very long - but the short duration of employee tenure creates serious problems for a firm:

Primarily, when a firm dismisses experienced workers, they also dismiss the expertise of those workers. There is a corresponding loss to the quality of product and quality of service that will be reflected in a loss of customers and revenue. It is a simple matter to train a new employee in the basic tasks necessary to perform a function, but the knowledge of the value of that function, how it integrates with the myriad of other activities of a firm, and how to do the job in a way that contributes to quality, are things that are learned only from experience.

When firms lay off their most experienced workers (as they are the most expensive), this damages the quality of work they will get from the remaining workers. There are fewer experienced workers left to mentor the less experienced (hence cheaper) workers who are left behind. Granted, the less experienced worker will gain experience over time, but the trial-and-error process is a serious setback for the firm.

And even for the experienced workers who are retained by virtue of the value of their knowledge, there is less incentive for them to effectively mentor their junior workers. Given that their expertise saved them from the last layoff, their hope is that it will save them from the next. And in this way, to share knowledge is to make oneself more disposable.

The effects of morale cannot be underestimated: as the remaining workers consider the impact of layoffs, and consider that their own future with the firm is uncertain, they become less vested in pursuing the firm's long-term interests. Their own tenure being short-term, the long-term welfare of the firm has no impact on their own.

The damage to the firm's public relations is a secondary effect. Aside of the sympathy customers, who are themselves employees of other firms, feel toward the employees who are unceremoniously dumped, there is the negative word-of-mouth spread by the terminated employees that impacts the customers' perception of the firm even further, and damages its reputation as an employer, making it difficult for the firm to appeal to quality candidates.

I expect I could list additional outcomes of mass layoffs that are detrimental to a firm, but these are likely among the most damaging, and the lesson is generally learned only in arrears. I don't expect there are many firms that consider the effects of treating employees as disposable assets, and when they find they have shot themselves in the foot, it's evident their first response is to deny responsibility - to bemoan the state of employee loyalty, and conveniently ignore that they have poisoned the very notion of loyalty to their own firm.

As such, they seek more effective ways to deal with the problem - to be more effective in recruiting and training new employees. This is entirely practical, as crying over spilt milk is perhaps the third most pointless and idiotic thing. The first is spilling it to begin with, and the second is failing to consider how to avoid spilling it a second time.

I have a sense that the same principles can be applied to the relationship between firms and customers - as "customer loyalty" is much bemoaned and there is a similar emphasis on acquiring "new" customers to replace the ones that are being lost "to the competition" - but I've rattled on enough for one post and can consider that topic separately, at a later time.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Poor Prediction of Customer Needs

In designing customer experience - perhaps in the discipline of design itself - a careful balance must be struck between making no assumptions about the needs or interests of users and leaving them to fend for themselves and being to excessive in the same assumptions and creating an experience (or product, or ought) that prevents a user from serving needs that were excluded by the designer's assumptions.

While much can be said about the former choice, of providing an inadequate level of service by failing to design to the needs of the user, my sense is that the latter is of greater concern in the current environment. The very notion of "service" is designing things in a way to be as useful as possible, and the consequence has been to make things so useful to a single and narrowly-defined set to needs as to be useless to anyone else ... and sometimes, in and of itself.

Take the example of "spelling correction" in word processing software - though it would be more accurate to call it "typing correction" as the majority of errors it seeks to address are not the result of a person not knowing how to spell a word, but of their mistyping a word they know how to spell and would likely not have munged if they had written the same passage longhand.

The first generation of word-processing software offered no help at all. It merely accepted keyboard input and appended it to a file, leaving the user to catch and correct their own typographical errors. It was better than a typewriter, in that the user could correct a mistake without having to re-type an entire page (at the risk of making other errors), but not very useful in identifying those errors in the first place.

A late generation of word processing added spell check: it would compare the words that the user typed to words in a dictionary and any word that was not stored in the "spelling" database. This was a great value to people with poor typing skills because it saved then the effort (mostly) of having to pore over a document to identify and correct typographical errors, and it did so with a high level of accuracy.

Shortly thereafter, the spelling checker began to make suggestions as to what word the user might have meant to type, to save them the trouble of going to a dictionary to find the correct spelling. And at this point, things started to go awry: the user who had typed "insufcent" for "insufficient" would get a list of words that included things such as innocent, infect, or infant. This was mildly amusing, but not entirely obstructive because the user generally knew what word he meant to type and could simply re-type it even if all the options were wrong.

Where designers went a bridge too far was in "upgrading:" the spelling checker to do this automatically. To the extent that the spell-check made accurate choices, it was a good idea. But because of the extent to which it makes bad choices, it is more of a help than a hindrance because it makes assumptions about the user's intentions and makes a correction without calling attention to what has been changed. Thus a user who far fingers the "f" and "g" keys might find that "fgive" is changed to "give' or "five" incorrectly, and without any visual signal that the change was made.

It gets worse in the mobile channel, where the mistakes made by "auto-correct" are further confounded by an "auto-complete" function that decides what word the user meant to type after only a few characters, and ignores any other keystrokes until the spacebar is tapped, preventing the user from typing what they had intended in the first place - to amusing and embarrassing effect.

Doubtless, the automatic correction of errors and completion of words were meant as features that would delight the user and reduce the amount of time that must be spent on re-reading and making corrections to content that has been input ... but it's had exactly the opposite effect. Users are having to go back to re-reading documents to catch the errors made by these "features," and the resulting documents are peppered with errors that the user would not have made on their own.

Naturally, designers and software developers are of their decisions - and rather than admit that these features were poorly conceived, they seem to be working toward improving the implementation: if it were more accurate (i.e., less bad), users wouldn't complain so much about it. Meanwhile, questions of "how do I disable" gets a lot of attention in help forums.

The solution to the problem, however, is a digression from the point: that user experiences can be over-designed, to the point that they become destructive of the values they proposed to deliver. While there is no easy solution that ill work in every case, it is at the very least a question that should be considered in the design process, and particularly in usability testing. In addition to determining whether the user can muddle through an experience, pay attention to the features they do not use, and the features that seem to frustrate rather than assist their behavior.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

When Gadgets Betray Us

I've added reading notes on When Gadgets Betray Us, which addresses a handful of topics concerning the way in which the use of technology, particularly mobile communications and sensors, gather an increasing amount of very granular data about people that is stored for an indefinite amount of time and used for various purposes that may in some instances be invasive, objectionable, or even dangerous.

The book was written as a cautionary tale for consumers, and as such it seems to be skewed toward aggrandizing incidents to create the perception that our use of technology leaves us in a highly vulnerable position in a world of hackers, thieves, fraudsters, and others who would seek to do us harm for their own profit and entertainment. And yet, latter chapters swing to the opposite extreme, dismissing the concern over privacy as being as silly as the tribal fear of photography stealing your soul.

This doesn't really add up to a balanced perspective, and calls to mind the metaphor that suggests that if you put one foot in lava and the other in liquid nitrogen, you should be comfortable on average. But to be fair, while the author did touch upon the extremes, the majority of the book finds a fairly reasonable position in between them - and it's likely my discomfort is the result of having a differing opinion about what level of security a person should accept, or advocate that others should accept.

Even so, I muddled through in spite of periodic malaise: the author does bring to light a number of considerations for the use of technology that are worth considering. It's a sensitive issue for customers to decide how much privacy they will sacrifice and how much risk they will accept for the sake of convenience, and important to consider a for those who work in technology professions and in industries where significant amounts of highly sensitive personal data are handled - as ultimately, those who design the technology are providing the options that customers must consider in making their choice.

Ultimately, I'd agree with the trust of his dissertation: that people are generally better off if they can make informed decisions - neither overly panicked about imaginary threats, nor soothed to ignoring the real ones that exist.