Friday, June 29, 2012

Brand Turnaround

I recently read Karen Post's book about salvaging a damaged brand: when crisis (inevitably) strikes and the mob turns against a once-trusted brand, how do they recover their esteem and regain the trust of their customers? The answer is quite simple: accept responsibility, clean up your act, and prove that you have done so.

I don't have the sense this is anything revolutionary, or anything that should need to be said - but if you look to the past three decades of debauchery in the corporate, nonprofit, and political spheres, it becomes fairly clear that people in positions of responsibility still have the hubris to assume that they can get away with the most gormless and/or heinous acts, even under the constant scrutiny of a watchful society.

But in all fairness, there are very few instances in which people conduct themselves as comic-book villains, seeking to spread harm and destruction for the sheer joy of it. Most times, it's trying to cover up a minor error by making a bigger one; or ignoring the side-effects while pursuing a worthy goal; or clinging to business as usual even though the market and the culture have changed.

And all in all, people tend to be forgiving - perhaps a bit overly so - when a mistake made for whatever reason is followed by a sincere apology and an earnest effort to rectify a problem. There's some comfort in that, but it should never outweigh the discomfort at the prospect of failure. Sometimes, that's all that keeps us on the right path.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Piecemeal Experience

I've experienced a lot of friction lately over a piecemeal approach to delivering features, functions, and services to customers - driven by a development methodology that is based on the notion that individual components should be implemented in production as soon as it is developed, rather than waiting for an entire application to be developed.

This is not unheard of: the notion of "versioning" software necessarily entails delivering a product that has a defined set of features and functions, with the intention of shipping a product to market and earning the revenue to release an improved version that contains a bit more of what the firm had hoped to deliver in the first place, but hadn't the time.

Over the last several months - possibly for the past several years - I have seen sites and software products that roll out functionality in a piecemeal fashion. Rather than putting together a site that delivers its full value to the consumer, bits of functionality are incrementally revealed and the experience is slowly delivered. Version 1.0 is next to useless, version 1.0.1 is little better, but it's not until version 1.17.82 that it provides anything of value.

In theory, this could be done in a manner in which the core value is delivered in the first release and the "bells and whistles" are added later - which used to be common - but in lately, it seems to me that a crippled and useless version is released, and the missing elements are not needless features, but functionality that is required to deliver the core value of the product that is absent. I can't think of a single instance in which it was a good user experience.

The problem with doing this is that it's detrimental to the reputation of the product, and especially when it comes to Web site experiences, that can be deadly: if users visit a site and has a horrible experience, the association to the brand is made, and it decreases the chance users will return later, when the problems have been fixed and appreciate what the provide intended to deliver.

An analogy: imagine receiving an advertisement for a restaurant that promises the best cheeseburgers in town ... but when you show up, you are offered a slice of cheese and a wad of raw meat. "We'll have buns next week," the waiter tells you, "and we'll get a stove next quarter so we can cook that for you."

It's a completely ludicrous scenario for any physical product - nobody would do such an ill-conceived thing - but for user experience in the digital channels, it's becoming standard procedure to hand the customer a few disjointed fragments, with the promise that the rest of the features will be rolled out at a later time.

Some customers will tolerate this behavior, and that some portion of them actually will come back in future in hope of getting what they were promised in the first place - and this does little to discourage the practice. When site owners tally up the numbers, they count the users they are getting, but don't seem to consider those whom they have disappointed and will harder to get to return. Their first experience was that the site was useless, and that's likely to remain their impression even months later, after it's been rendered useful.

That's not to say that it's impossible to roll out partially useful sites and add capabilities later, but the initial roll-out must offer a valid benefit to the user. Consider the development of many e-commerce sites by catalog merchants: the initial roll-out was simply a product inventory; a second phase was adding the ability to compile a list of items; the third enabled the user to print the list and mail it along with a check; and the last phase added the ability to enter a credit card number and order online.

That worked, but only because the steps were in a certain order. If the version 1.0 offered only the ability to fill out an order form - without the ability to view and create a list of products - it would have been regarded as pointless, and it would have been highly unlikely anyone would have used it, or come back a second time to see if it had been made useful by the addition of other features.

It's also worth considering the tense: it worked in the past - not necessarily that it works today or could work in future. When there was a lack of competition, people were easily impressed. If a catalog merchant who sold shoes wanted to open an online store in 1995, they could have gotten away with this incremental approach because no-one offered anything better. Attempting to do the same in the present day would be foolish: there are already many options to the consumer that offer the full package and more. You might get a passing glance from people who are curious to see the new shop, but they would quickly recognize the lack of value, return to their current providers, and likely never drop in to see if you've managed to get your act together.

Even where the service a site offers is unique, it has to offer value. In the present competitive environment, if you roll out something half-baked, chances are a competitor that is more nimble or has more resources can recognize the value of the idea if it were done right, and roll out a better version in short order.

I have a sense there's much more to be considered on this topic, but I've rambled myself into a corner again.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Social Media Missteps

The importance of getting things right, even in small ways, is that one minor mistake can call attention to a number of larger ones. Consider this Facebook post from, a (good) service that provides free access to a growing collection of (mediocre) pamphlets on various topics.

I've screenshotted it because I expect (or hope) that it will be corrected or retracted once they recognize the obvious error ... but I wonder if they will recognize that it's the least of their problems.

Problem 1: Her Name is Not "Mark"

The comment is from "Leen Coleen from Sweden" - and the company's response is "Mark, you are welcome." There's an obvious mismatch, and not one that isn't easy to make. It's not a typo in the name, or assuming "Coleen" was her first name rather than the last - it's just completely wrong.

Calling a person by the wrong name is a minor glitch when it's done in meatspace. Maybe it's not so minor, as people tend to be very possessive of their names and some take great offense when you get them wrong ... but it's understandable in speech because it's often extemporaneous and easily corrected.

In print or online, it is less forgivable - especially when their (correct) name is right there. Perhaps we can imagine that they had two positive comments to share, the one from Leen was better than the first one they got from Mark and rather than publish both, they chose hers, but merely cut-and-pasted their response, neglecting to change the name. Even at that, its' sloppy work and shows a disregard for the person who took the time to give them a flattering comment in public.

Problem 2: Attention Hogging

Facebook gives you a very simple way to share any post ... by using the "share" button. If it's a comment on one of your posts (which this seems unlikely to be), you can click "like" and it will call attention to your gratitude for the comment, and then readers who are interested will look to the comment itself.

Another consequence is that it denies Leen the attention she should get as the author of a comment. It's fairly common practice for social media to provide a link to a person's profile when they make a comment on a post - and it's pretty obvious that some people go around making comments on other peoples' posts just to get attention for themselves, but I don't think that's the case here.

When you take on extra effort to copy and repost a comment rather than just "share" or "like" it in order to disable the link and keep people looking at your page rather than clicking away, that's a violation of the conventions of social media. It's rude, inconsiderate, and anti-social. This is no small matter.

Problem 3: Credibility Fail

Another reason to use the "like" or "share" button instead of copying a comment and stripping out the link to the commenter is because it gives you credibility. People are used to seeing this and, even though most don't check up on you, it gives them the sense that these are real comments from a real person because that's the way it generally works.

Without proper attribution of a quote (including a link), there's the sense that the testimonial may be a fake. If it's not a complete fake, then perhaps they changed the words a bit, maybe for noble reason (Leen is from Sweden and maybe her English is a bit mangled) or maybe not.

In this instance, it's very easy to check up - there's a search box at the top of Facebook that doesn't even require leaving the page. And it looks like "Leen Colleen" does not exist. The damage to their credibility far outweighs the positive sentiment from a testimonial, which is itself instantly voided.

This is a very serious problem for the brand.

Problem 4: Uselessness

When people brag about themselves on Facebook, it's tolerated. It seems narcissistic and needy to post that "It's my birthday" or "I just won an award" because it is clearly an attempt to get others to congratulate the poster - but it may also be an event that is meaningful to them, such that they are inclined to share it with others and it's good to hear positive news about our friends. We want to hear it, and we want to congratulate them.

When it comes to companies, we expect them to flatter themselves with positive information, but it's done for a mercenary purpose: to get us to use their service or buy their product. It's a bit unctuous, but at the same time, it's typical behavior. Whenever you "friend" a company, or very shortly afterward, you realize that you're going to get promotional announcements. A lot of them.

Hopefully, some of those announcements will be of some value to you. For example, When bookboon publishes an announcement about a new booklet, there's a chance it will be something I am interested in reading. When they publish a positive comment about an older booklet, maybe they are calling attention to one that I have overlooked.

What possible use is there in publishing this particular comment? It merely states that the services is good in general. Especially since the post is seen by people who have friended the company and are presumably already using the service, a random comment from an unknown person that gives general praise doesn't have any value as far as I can see.


I could likely go further, finding other ways in which this particular incident demonstrates a gross incompetence in the use of social media and has done the firm far more harm than good - but four is enough. The specific aspects are far less damning than the underlying character flaw of a firm that fails to consider the interests of its audience, and is inconsiderate to those who seek to interact with it, in the social media.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Tablet Isn't Mobile ... But Neither Is Mobile

I've noticed that tablet (iPad) is very often being lumped in with mobile (iPhone) in consideration of alternative methods of customer interaction - but the mistake is that they are considered to be essentially the same, so developing a single application for tablet and mobile channels seems completely misguided.

Specifically, the tablet is not a mobile platform: I haven't seen anyone attempting to use a tablet computer while they were walking - the device demands too much attention to be used in an intermittent fashion. Most often, a tablet device is carried in a purse or satchel. When the user wishes to employ the device, they stop moving, find a place to sit down near a table-like surface, lay the device down, and use it. When they are finished, they pack it up and move on. This is not mobile computing, but portable computing - more like a small notebook computer than a mobile device.

My first inclination was to say that "this is not the way that people interact with a mobile device" ... but as a matter of fact, it often is. While I don't see many people seeking a flat surface on which to place the device, I do see them stopping completely to use mobile. Very often, you'll see individuals standing like a cow in the middle of a busy sidewalk or standing on the brake after the light has turned green because they are interacting with their device ... and given the staggering statistics on driving while distracted, perhaps that's for the best.

However, the point remains that even mobile devices are not mobile computing - they can be used in the field, certainly, but the way in which they are employed requires the user to stop being mobile and interact with the device, giving it their full attention and the use of both hands, as a result of poor design.

Ironically enough, usability experiments that are meant to guide designers to practices that are suitable to the mobile channel compel test subjects to use mobile devices in a stationary manner: the device is placed on a flat surface and the user must interact with it using both hands. When they attempt to pick the device up, the proctor instructs them to put it back on the table so that the camera can capture their interaction. That is, they are forced to use the device in a non-mobile way, and the results of the test are skewed.

That's not to mention that the inherent problem with a laboratory test, which is being confined to a lab environment, prevents the user from interacting with a mobile device in the mobile manner. It's particularly dysfunctional in that usability is meant to inform design, and where usability experiments are so obviously flawed, they end up misinforming design, such that applications are designed to compel users to adopt the same awkward means of interaction when the final application is released to the wild.

That opens up an entirely different can of worms (how bad usability testing encourages bad products) - but it does suggest a cause-and-effect relationship that ends up in a vicious circle: because the applications we use are poorly designed, we change our behavior, and because this becomes taken as "the way people use" a given device, it becomes ingrained in the design process.

But to lurch back to the original point: the tablet isn't a mobile device, nor is it a laptop computer - it is a thing unto itself - and until it is considered as such, design practices will be misguided. If ever we are going to progress toward the prediction that mobile and tablet will surpass the computer as the channel of preference for consumers, we must design to suit the way in which users interact via those channels, rather than assume they are analogous.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Experience is Not the Most Important Thing

I have the sense that if you read enough about any profession, you'll eventually stumble across an article, chapter, or blog entry in which someone suggests that their profession, whatever it happens to be, is the most important thing a company does and that all else should be marginalized or subordinated to it. I've read a few too many arguments of that nature regarding the customer experience profession lately, and it's starting to rankle.

The most important thing any company does is to provide a product or service that fulfills a need. It is for this reason alone that the company exists; and it is for this reason alone that customers purchase its products. My sense is that this statement is axiomatic, and the claim that any specific function of the firm is exclusive in accomplishing that purpose is a distortion, exaggeration, or a patent falsehood.

And it follows that every department and every role within a firm is either focused directly on achieving that purpose, or provides a necessary support function to those departments and roles that do. That is to say that every function can be connected in some way to the core purpose of a firm, and the firm would be less effective in accomplishing its purpose if that function were removed.

If there is to be any assignment of purpose, it's likely that all functions can be considered in terms of the impact that their removal would have of the company's ability to function:
  1. If this function were eliminated, the company would fail very quickly.
  2. If this function were eliminated, the company would be less efficient or effective, and would fail over a longer period of time.
  3. If this function were eliminated, it would make no difference at all.
Considered thus, it would seem reasonable to rank the customer experience function in the second class. The product would still be produced, and it would be adequate to fulfilling the needs of the consumer. It might be more difficult to obtain, more awkward to use, and less suitable in many regards, but it would still be available and functional.

Granted that, in a competitive environment, customers have a variety of options at their disposal for meeting most of their needs. And in that sense, placing careful consideration on the customer experience is of great importance in a competitive market, and likely critical to the success and sustainability of a firm. But it is not the most important thing.

I'm reminded of an image ad I saw some years ago, for BASF, a manufacturer of industrial chemicals: "We don't make a lot of the products you buy. We make a lot of the products you buy better." And my sense is that those of us in the customer experience profession would do well to adopt that mantra.

What we do is not the most important thing. That's not to say it is not important, as it's critical to success in any competitive market ... but let's tone down the presumptuous aggrandizement of our profession.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Creating Digital Value

I recently read an interesting book called Creating Customer Value on the Digital Frontier, which presents a model for considering ideas for creating products and services that deliver value by using digital technology to escape the boundaries of space, time, and matter. I realize how utterly hokey and overwrought that sounds, but bear with me ...

The author provides a model of eight “realms” of experience, that begin with the tangible real-world experience, consider how technology enables us to depart from real environments, physical objects, and linear time to overcome some of the limitations of real-world experience. It’s a different way of considering “waht can technology do for me” that is a bit more structured than the daydreaming approach to physical reality. A brief overview of this model follows:

1. Reality (actual time, space, and matter)

Reality is the real of physical spaces and objects and linear time, and is the space with which people are most familiar because it is where they live and have the majority of their experiences. Examples are numerous: go for a walk in the park, leaving your gadgets behind, and you are immersed in a real experience.

2. Mirrored Virtuality (virtual space, actual time and matter)

Mirrored virtuality represents actual time and matter in a virtual space. Consider the experience of watching a live sporting event on television: real people acting in real time, but the space in which you watch them (the television screen) is a virtual environment – you are not at the stadium watching the actual athletes, but see exactly what is happening through a device.

3. Augmented Reality (virtual matter, actual time and space)

Augmented reality layers virtual elements over a real environment in linear time. The purest example would be a cell phone application that enables you to view your actual environment, with an overlay of data: point it at a person, and see their name pop up beneath their face, with a link to view various details about them.

4. Warped Reality (virtual time, actual space and matter)

Warped reality depicts actual environments and things, but allows the user to play with the timeline. A good example of this might be online video, where you can play it in real time or slow motion, skip back and forward in the timeline, watch the sequence out of its normal order.

5. Augmented Virtuality (actual space, virtual time and matter)

Augmented virtuality depicts actual spaces, but virtual time and matter. Take the example of an application that demonstrates the construction of a building. The lot on which it will eventually stand is an actual space, but the depiction of the building that will someday be there is a virtual object that is depicted outside of linear time (in the future).

6. Physical Virtuality (actual matter, virtual time and space)

Physical virtuality depicts real objects in imaginary environments. An example might be an application used by a realtor to depict how your current furnishings would look in a home that has not yet been built.

7. Alternate Reality (actual time, virtual space and matter)

Alternate reality relies on a linear experience in a virtual environment filled with virtual things. Most video games offer a form of alternate reality, in which the only aspect that is locked to the real world is that your character progresses through a linear plot or progression.

8. Virtuality (virtual time, space, and matter)

Virtuality divorces itself from real life experience altogether: imaginary objects in an unreal setting that do not obey linear time. It’s difficult to describe a truly virtual experience – a depiction of a dream-like state in which objects and places are unreal and there is no logic to the sequence of events.

Nothing is Completely Real or Completely Virtual

My main problem with the examples, the book, and the theory in general is that it creates a false dichotomy between “real” and “virtual” time, space, and matter: neither of these extremes is ever fully realized.

What is depicted in the virtual extremes of time, space, and matter are often representations of reality: a completely imaginary “alien word” contains components taken from reality – the environment is a pastiche of elements from the real world: the rocks may be green, but the rocks are based on what we understand to be “a rock” based on our real experience.

What is experienced in the real world, restricted by time, space, and matter, is created by imagination. The experience of the user is all in the mind of the user: give any child a stick and a stack of cardboard boxes, and he becomes a knight in a castle fighting an imaginary dragon. This sense fades in adults, but is still present: who reads a book projects himself into an imaginary space and time.


In spite of the shortcomings and the blurred lines of theory, my sense is the book remains a good read, and provides some structure for brainstorming digital value: how could the experience of shopping for tires be improved if we removed the need to travel to a physical location (space), look at a limited selection of options in inventory (matter), and do so during store hours (time)?

If you consider escaping the constraints of the real world in one or two dimensions, a flood of ideas come to mind – more than if you simply asked the vague question “how could tire shopping be better?” So ultimately, it’s worth applying a theoretical model that may not be theoretically perfect.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Problem of Human Emotion

I'm deeply concerned at the number of instances in which the notion of "emotional branding" is being used to promulgate the most gorgeously idiotic notions ... and, in turn, to propose the most gorgeously idiotic practices.

To be clear, I don't dismiss the concept of emotion as a critical factor in decision-making and acknowledge that there is a convincing argument that has a legitimate scientific basis that consumers behavior is driven by emotional impulse: that we feel first and think later, and that consumers often apply reason subjectively to justify an initial emotional reaction.

But too often, I've seen emotion used as a basis for some general observation about consumer behavior without any plausible connection to a valid scientific basis, and my sense is that it is in danger of becoming a form of mysticism, with emotions being portrayed as an unknown and unknowable force that cannot be questioned or considered logically, and that anyone who claims to be attuned to emotion should be granted automatic credibility.

This is likely a danger faced by any phenomenon that is only partially understood. Consider the number of medical treatments that used electricity or radiation in ways that we later came to recognize as completely invalid. The practitioners at the time had some shred of understanding of what these phenomena were and did, and invented devices that ultimately did more harm than good to the patients who had the vague sense that there was validity to an untested hypothesis or a phenomenon that was barely understood.

It's my sense that the same is true of emotional branding today; and while I'm confident that history will sort out the quacks from the legitimate practitioners, those of us who live and act in the present day do not have the luxury of time, and should be cautions about accepting (and even more reluctant at the prospect of making) half-witted pronouncements.

And half-wittedness is exactly the issue: a person who is completely ignorant does less harm than one who understands a little, just enough to be dangerous, and proceeds with boldness and confidence in the wrong direction. Given that" vague and little" describes the present state of knowledge about emotion, a bit of reluctance and skepticism is well in order.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Consistency versus Quality?

I read through a discussion thread where participants were debating the trade-off of consistency and quality in customer service. Ultimately, I decided not to participate, as it seemed the two sides were well-entrenched and not really listening to one another - but it is an interesting dilemma:

Primarily, my sense is that the very topic is misconceived: consistency and quality are not opposites. Consistency and customization are opposites, and the question is which one of them better accomplishes the goal of providing quality service.

There's also the problem of staying on that goal. The advocates of consistency seemed to be distracted by a conflicting agenda: operational efficiency. I don't think there's much ground for argument as to whether operational efficiency is best served by consistency or inconsistency - the former is the hands-down winner. You use exactly the same materials and perform exactly the same actions to produce exact replicas of the same products, and the only variable you cannot control or foresee is volume of demand.

However, operational efficiency is not the same as customer service - and it's a separate argument as to whether customer service should be compromised to provide greater operational efficiency. And in that sense, service becomes the hands-down winner: there is little point in being highly efficient at providing a product that is undesirable or an experience customers find unpleasant.

That's not to say things are necessarily so: the best possible situation for a firm is being highly efficient at providing a product that is desirable and an experience that is pleasant. There's no reason that could not be possible, though it tends not to be so.

The problem is that customers are people, each of whom is to some degree an individual with idiosyncratic needs and desires. And as such, there are not many situations where the exact same product or customer experience is preferable to all. Even when you sort them into groups by vague and high-level criteria (market segmentation by any other name) the idiosyncrasies persist.

The degree to which customers will be willing to compromise their needs to accept a consistent (but not quite comfortable) fit with a product is also decreasing. Cam Marston's research into generational tastes and preferences suggests that this waxes and wanes: the older demographic groups are often willing to compromise, being from an era where there weren't a lot of choices and conformity was a social value, the younger are more demanding and come from an era where their individual rights and needs are respected. I don't see that changing.

However, it's not a matter of evolution or the choice of one extreme to the exclusion of the other. Even the younger demographics who expect service providers to serve their individual needs expect some consistency: while they demand that a product or service to be tailored to their specific needs (customized) they also expect it to be the same (for them) every time (consistency).

Ultimately, I don't see a clear winner in the debate, or that such an argument can be won on theoretical grounds. The competition is in the arena of the market, the weapon is research, the judges are the customers, the reward is profit, and the stake is sustainability.