Monday, May 28, 2012

Educating the Customer

I find the notion that firms must educate customers to the value of their products to be absurd, even more so when it comes from customer experience professionals. The idea is that the product is good just the way it is and does not need to be changed to suit the customer, but the customer doesn't realize how good it is. That's the reason they're not buying it. It's not our fault.

I don't think that's categorically false, but I do think it is mostly false, for most products and most customers, and using such a crutch doesn't merely prevent a firm from effectively solving its problems and prevent them from effective a good solution, it ensures that they continue to waste resources pursing the wrong course of action.

The fact that it is sometimes true, unfortunately, gives people who subscribe to the notion the idea that they are doing the right thing, and should continue to focus their efforts along the same lines.

There will always be some number of people who have the vague sense that they need something but don't quite know what it is and genuinely need someone to tell them, or who know they have a problem but haven't a clue what to do about it, and will continue to live with a situation until someone helps them discover a way out.

And to the degree to which such customers exist, education (advertising) will succeed. The low response rate to advertising shouldn't be taken as an indication that you need to do more advertising, but to retrench and consider whether education is the problem ... it might be something else.

For new brands and new products, education is necessary; but for established brands, it's less likely to be so. If customers are aware of their needs, aware that there is a product that offers a solution, aware that your brand is one such product, and aware of the things they need to do to get their hands on your product, then they know everything they needs to know to be motivated to purchase from you. And yet, they may choose not to.

In that situation, it is not the customer that needs to be educated, but the supplier, as the supplier clearly doesn't understand the reason the customer has chosen not to purchase their product. There are a myriad of reasons: there is no real need, the need does not occur as broadly or frequently as assumed, the product isn't well-suited to serving the need, competing products are better, cheaper, and/or more convenient to obtain, etc.

These hypotheses should be tested with an objective eye. It's easy to witness, and hard to deny, that other brands are cheaper. It's also fairly easy to do an objective test to determine whether your brand is more effective at meeting most practical needs. And if these notions turn out to be false, there are well-tested advertising formats (price comparisons, demonstrations, etc.) that will help to correct the perception of your brand.

The problem vey often is denial: a given brand is more expensive, less effective, and more difficult to obtain than the competitors' offerings - but executives insist that it is otherwise, wish the customers to share the same delusion, and demand that the marketing department should make this happen.

In those situations, the best thing to do is make sure your resume is up to date. If you attempt to rectify executive perception and succeed, you'll do your firm a lot of good and likely make a name for yourself. But it's more likely you will be perceived as being insubordinate or failing to get with their program, which will not be very good for your career. Or if you capitulate and attempt to sell a lie to the market, you will not be successful and may even be seen as unethical.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Leading the Discussion

I was listening to a presentation on social media, and the speaker seemed to get stuck on a notion that seems entirely misguided: that brands should seek to "lead the discussion" and set a goal of getting customers to speak of a product using the same jargon as company insiders do - that when you notice Facebook updates and Twitter posts using your words, it's a sign you're making progress.

Something about that seems entirely backward: if anything, a company should monitor the feeds to see what terms people are using to describe their needs in relation to a product, and use the language of the customer in outbound communications.

That is, if five thousand Facebook users are asking their friends if they know of a detergent that removes grass stains, you really ought to consider using the phrase "removes grass stains" in your next campaign. You should not invent a term for your collateral, run an ad, and see how many of Facebook users start talking about "degrassination."

I'd concede that this is probably a good way to measure the reach and influence of an advertisement - if you use a term that isn't in common parlance in your messaging and people seem to pick up on it, there's little denying that this is a result of your influence. But I have a sense that it's very hard to do, and likely not a good measure of success: your goal isn't to get people using your words, but using your brand.

But more to the point, a firm that expects its customers to speak in the terms of insiders is steadfast in remaining out of touch with its market. Such a brand literally does not speak the same language as its prospective customers, and flatly refuses to do so, but instead insists that the market must undertake the effort to learn the brand's preferred terms.

My sense is that this is not the path to success.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Malthusian Economics

I recently read Thomas Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population, and while I often emerge from the dusty tomes of classical economics with some fresh perspective on the present day, Malthus leaves me decidedly unenlightened.

In all, I'm impressed that Malthus is not the idiot that he is often made out to be. Though the calculations for which he is known and mocked, regarding the growth in population versus the growth of agricultural development, are decidedly ill-conceived, he's otherwise well-meaning and circumspect, and raises a number of good points in support of a failed thesis.

But beyond that, I'm not really taking much away from the book, expect perhaps some insights as to the difference in economics of emerging nations as compared to more developed nations, and maybe the sense that mankind in general has made excellent progress in certain areas. But somehow, I think there may have been a quicker and less tedious route to the same destination.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Error: Please Shop Elsewhere

Lately, I've encountered a spate of perplexing error messages that left me at a complete dead-end, with no clear indication of what went wrong or what I could to to move forward and complete a transaction. It got me thinking about the principles of good error handling - but I don't think the problem is that those principles are unknown ... they're simply not being applied. That's more difficult to fathom in a competitive marketplace.

Service failure is not unique to the online experience, but when it occurs in other channels (voice or brick-and-mortar) there is generally a service provider who can help the customer overcome the problem and successfully complete a transaction. "Generally" reflects that there are instances in which the problem cannot be overcome (in which case the service provider can apologize and ameliorate in some way) or when process/procedure/rules constrain them from doing so (which is a much worse problem).

The excuse might be offered that the problem is a technical one, that computer systems are rigid and rules-based and cannot react adaptively - but that's not entirely true. The system was programmed by a person, who was given instructions and requirements by another person, who together wrote the "rules" by which the system behaves and decided exactly how it would react in any situation. They just didn't bother to consider or plan for contingencies.

In terms of behavior, perhaps they imagine that a visitor who encounters an error on a Web site will simply try again and somehow manage to get it right. It's actually a common behavior when it comes to computer software - users struggle with a word processor and go through a trial-and-error process to get a task completed. But this is likely because installing a different word processor is difficult and costly. Switching from one Web site to another to purchase a product is rather simple.

The problem is compounded by the fact that some users will try again, get it right, and continue doing business with us - and that leads us to be complacent and ever more expectant that every customer who encounters a problem will struggle to do business with us rather than walk away to competitor. And if they'll tolerate one problem, they'll tolerate another, and another.

And again, this is not unique to the online channel. Brick-and-mortar retail is truly awful in this regard because of the time that would be required to travel from one shop to another, so you really have to treat a customer roughly for them to abandon their cart, leave the store, and drive to another one. Online merchants cannot count on the same level of tolerance and patience, as the competition is a click away.

It's likely easier to accept it as an issue that deserves attention if it's framed as "some do try again, but most don't," and there likely isn't an effective way to determine how many people will run away (to the competition) when they encounter an error message. If there is no clear solution to the problem, and they can't figure out on their own, it's highly unlikely they will call tech support (which is infamously unsatisfactory) or be willing to try again later to see if the problem might have been fixed.

The best solution is to consider every possible outcome of every possible action and deliver an error-free experience. I think everyone would agree with that, but many would argue that it is impossible to do so. Strictly speaking, they are wrong - but from a practical perspective, it's likely an unreasonable expectation. No matter how much effort you put into developing a system, there will inevitably be a contingency that you didn't account for, and the marginal return of handling increasingly improbable scenarios becomes unprofitable.

So it's likely the best practical solution, after safeguarding against any reasonable contingency, is to give the user clear instructions as to how to overcome the problem. Any error message that fails to give the user a clear path to success discourages them from continuing to use the system - and when "the system" provides a product or a value-add, it discourages them from continuing to use the business.

There are no shortage of sources that provide advice and suggestions for handling errors - but before any such resource will do any good, a site operator will have to want to do so. My sense is that is the root of the problem.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Failing in Three Dimensions

Three-dimensional "virtual reality" experiences have often been suggested as the ultimate goal of the digital medium, but I've been dubious of their value. In particular, the notion of making the e-commerce experience similar to shopping in a physical store never has made much sense to me, and I figured the notion had long since been abandoned. Having seen a prototype of yet another attempt - and quite a good one from a technical standpoint (highly mimetic, seamless interaction, etc.) - I still predict that this approach will be a complete failure.

I mention graphic quality and load speed because those have been the straw-men of those who advocate 3D virtual worlds - they maintain that the concept is good, and the fact that people don't share their enthusiasm it is simply due to technical problems with the presentation: if they could make it less fake-looking and choppy, all the other complaints would go away.

Computer technology does a very poor job of simulating real life - or even providing ample evidence to overcome the willing suspension of disbelief for many users. It does this fairly badly, as it works with only two of our senses - however well it mimics the look and sound of a real environment, it offers nothing to smell and taste and touch. No matter how it good the audiovisual elements get (and they're remarkably good even today), it's still lacking. This is the chief reason that the Internet has not been a good venue for selling products that appeal to those senses. This was an obvious issue that was not overcome by the prototype, as it presented a very well-crafted audiovisual simulation of merchandise for which tactile sense is critical.

But even beyond that, the experience of shopping in a 3D environment is ill-suited even for products that sight alone, or even when just the product name without an image is sufficient. The reason for this is that one of the chief values of the Internet is overcoming the tedium of physical space, and virtual worlds bring that tedium right back to the fore.

An example might help: consider the experience of shopping in a bookstore. Even if you eliminate the need to travel to the store itself, the shopping experience involves navigating physical space: you have to walk through aisles and browse the shelves to find what you're looking for. If I want a cookbook, a reference book, and a novel, I have to go to three separate locations inside the store, walking through aisles of things I am not interested in buying, then visually scanning the shelves for the precise item I want - and picking up items one at a time to read the jacket copy and perhaps flip through some of the content. Im the real world, it's a tedious and time-consuming process.

Contrast that to shopping for a book online online: if I know the title or author, I can navigate to a specific item in seconds. If I have a topic in mind, I can run a search and retrieve a list of matching titles. Where I want to read a description or excerpts, it's a click away. Where I am not certain which of three similar books best matches my interests, I can open them in tabs or side-by-side windows for a detailed comparison. It's much faster and less tedious than real-world interaction.

In that sense, the 3D virtual store brings back the tedium of having to travel through a (simulated) physical environment. Even if the site is designed so that I could "warp" from one location to another, it's far more work than I am accustomed to doing. The "gee whiz" factor runs out very quickly, overshadowed by the tedious necessity that has been copied from reality, in a channel in which I have grown accustomed to doing things in a much less cumbersome manner.

This is why I still maintain that 3D virtual reality will continue to fail as a medium for merchandising, no matter how technology and design improve the graphic quality or reduce the load time - and even if they can bring back the senses that are currently muted.

What's more, this is a problem that I do not believe can be overcome. I'd love to be proven wrong by a clever designer who can create a virtual experience that eliminates the tedium ... but I don't think that will happen. While the advocates of 3D will focus on the technical issues, as they seem to have been doing all these years, they will likely continue to ignore that the task of interacting with a 3D world is a simulation of an inconvenient experience.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Procedures and Customs

There was a discussion about procedures in customer service where I was deeply concerned about some of the responses in the thread, but felt it would be inappropriate to comment at length at some of the problems I was seeing in the context of the discussion - and so:

The question that drove the thread was whether procedures are detrimental to providing good customer service. Most of the responses seemed to indicate that people in the customer service profession see them as a good thing, as a way of ensuring that employees do what is necessary to provide adequate service to the customer. On the surface, that seems like a good intention - but when you think about it, it's quite appalling:

Taken at face value, it shows a lack of trust, perhaps even contempt, for the front-line employee who interacts with the customer. Several of participants, customer service practitioners, seemed to fully subscribe the premise that the employee who serves the customer will not know how to perform even the most basic tasks unless there are procedures to give them detailed instructions that they must follow to the letter.

But more to the point, none there seemed to acknowledge that the effect of procedures are not to control the employee, but to control the customer: the employee is merely a proxy, acting for his company, to deliver service. And in that way, any procedure is a company's attempt to inflict procedures upon the customer - because in interacting with an employee who is following a script, the customer must follow the same script in order to get the service he desires.

I don't subscribe to the notion that prescribed interactions are wholly detrimental to customer service - if the goal of the procedure is to actually provide (rather than deny) service, and if both parties (employee and customer) are aware of them. For example, the pattern of behavior when taking a meal in a restaurant is well established, and a comfortable routine for the customer. The staff does their part, I do my part, and the experience is familiar and comfortable as a result.

It's also rather interesting that there is an entirely separate word for the standard procedures in situations like this: they are called "customs" - and it's likely no coincidence that the word "custom," "customer," and "accustomed" all derive from the same root - because it is, or should be, the very same thing.

Procedures only seem to come into play when something goes awry - to handle an interaction that is not usual and familiar. They also are used when a firm wishes to deviate from customs, hence must require its employees to behave in unnatural ways, which in turn requires its customers to behave in unnatural ways - which is to say, both are required to behave in a way that is awarded, usual, and uncomfortable, and which defies intuition and common sense.

Going back to the restaurant example, a restaurant might institute a procedure that the waiter may only bring a check to a customer who stands in their chair, perhaps intending to avoid uncertainty as to when the customer was ready to leave and relieve the awkward ambiguity over who is paying for the meal. Customers wouldn't understand this requirement and would likely be frustrated by the situation: once it's explained to them, they might be willing to comply, feeling a bit asinine but reluctantly accepting it as necessary. It likely would not go over well, even when they understood what was required of them.

The same is likely true of many things for which companies feel the need to establish procedures - if something were intuitive or required common sense, establishing, writing down, and training employees (to manipulate customers) to comply with it would be entirely unnecessary.

With that in mind, likely the best course is to get out of the mindset of attempting to control your customers by establishing procedures, and instead attempting to understanding their expectations, with some consideration as to how to handle situations where things don't go as expected ... or more often, to empower the employee on the front-line to adapt and serve the customer when the company (often a committee of people who have no customer contact) is wrong-headed about what those expectations are.

Instead of handing employees a set of procedures to memorize and follow, empowering those who provide service requires a firm to educate them on the customs that already exist in a given service situation, provide them with guidance as to how to solve problems that might arise, and authoroize them to make the decisions necessary to tailor service the customer.

If your goal is to provide excellent customer service, that should make perfect sense. If your goal is anything else, you're likely not cut out for the customer service profession.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Trust in Apathy

UX professionals generally accept without question the principle that users do not change their default settings. Unfortunately, I’m not the type to accept anything without question, a trait that is a constant nuisance to my colleagues, but one that generally leads me to a firmer understanding and greater confidence in a decision. So I dug into it, and found some interesting facts:

The notion that users do not change defaults holds: a study done by Jared Spool, patron saint of usability, gathered hundreds of config files from Microsoft Word users, and found that less than 5% of users had changed any of the settings at all. That is, more than 95% ran the program rigged exactly as it was when it was installed.

But in looking at his description of the experiment (which he posted to his corporate blog), the reason why users do that: users suggest that "Microsoft must know what they are doing," and they assume the program’s settings were based on careful consideration of their needs and rigged it the best way for the average users.

Looking further, this trust is entirely misplaced. Spool touched on some contacts at Microsoft to get more perspective, and what he found was that a programmer decided to initialize the config.ini file with all zeroes (everything turned off). The firm did not make a conscious decision, or even give much consideration, to the needs of the user. They just never got around (a kindly way of saying “didn’t bother”) to do the research or, if they did, they never got around to telling the programmers what the default settings ought to be, so it shipped with all the extras turned off.

I’m a bit disappointed that this is where it ends, such that it can be written off as the result of one apathetic employee. I doubt that’s true, and would even go so far as to speculate that the programmer in question mentioned to someone that they needed to do some research to determine what those settings should be. He may have mentioned it to several people, several times, to the point that they got annoyed with him and someone gave the order to back off ... or else.

Perhaps that’s just me, projecting personal experience onto a situation at another firm, but it’s entirely plausible, especially given that Microsoft is infamous for being aggressive on deadlines and raining hell-fire on teams whose projects that fail to make their ship dates. This results in a shortcut culture in which “little details” such as doing research to determine the users needs are put on the sidebar (never to be taken off of it) or even purposefully scuttled. In such a culture, a bone-headed error like this isn’t merely possible, it’s probable to the point of being virtually guaranteed.

In the bigger picture, I expect that many technical products have this flaw – and I don’t think it’s limited only to technology. The manufacturers of even mundane products build in an array of options that they assume the user will configure to suit their needs. Meanwhile, the user assumes that the manufacturer considered their needs in the default configuration. The collision of these assumptions, like a comedy of errors, leads to rotten user experience.

The irony of the situation is that insiders know this very well. Spool’s research also contrasts the behavior of programmers and designers to those of the average person, finding that people who are involved in creating software know about the shortcomings of the default configurations. Per the research, programmers and designers “often” change up to 40% of the default settings of the applications they user, and “some” change as much as 80%.

So it’s not that the people who design and build the products are unaware the default settings are less than optimal, and I doubt it’s that they know but don’t tell. They know, they tell, and they are threatened into silence by someone who was looking to go faster or cut costs. As such, it's at the level of corporate culture that the problem needs to be solved.