Friday, July 27, 2012

Overwrought Design

The intelligence of people who don't read has been derided regularly enough - maybe not enough that there's a cultural shift, but enough that I don't feel the need to remark upon it before considering the situation from the other side: designers who seem to accept that most people are voluntarily, perhaps even functionally, illiterate. I don't have much respect for them, either.

Having some modicum of respect for the user is necessary to user experience design. If you're disdainful of your customers, cajole them with pretty pictures, and take away their choices on the premise that they are too simple to decide for themselves, you're likely in the wrong line of work. Being served by a snotty clerk or waiter is not a good user experience, and neither is using a site or device that was clearly designed by someone who considers you to be unintelligent.

Nanny design may be driven by narcissism: the designer who feels the need to dumb down an experience regards users with contempt. His ego won't allow him to admit that they can understand without his assistance. How much more clever he is because he designs down to the stupid, sheepish mass of humanity. An what a magnanimous individual he is if he has designed something so simple a child can use it. Unless he is actually designing for children, that isn't a mark of distinction.

Or possibly it is driven by lack of competence or confidence: the designer who does not understand his users is incapable of differentiating instances in which facilitation is necessary from those in which it is not, and as such over-designs everything to be as facile as possible to avoid the potential that anything might go awry. That is, he doesn't know what his users know, and presumes them to know nothing. It's the safest thing to do if you can't trust your own judgment.

The principle of minimalism is claimed as justification, in a mangled and misinterpreted way, by nanny designers to mean that things should be dead simple - an "on" button and nothing else, strip away all the options, features, and decisions that might render an experience confusing to the users whom he holds in contempt, and prevents them from using it in ways the designer was incapable of imagining or accommodating.

It really doesn't wash: some things can be pared down to a single task, done a single way, with no options or features - take it or leave it. This is generally more true of physical tools and devices that it is of digital services, whose benefit is to provide capabilities and flexibility. And while I have to concede that a single service or piece of software that attempts to do too many things generally does each of them poorly, it's not an excuse to go to the opposite extreme.

Perhaps that's what it boils down to - the constant pendulum swing from one extreme to the other that, in the wake of the last swing to the do-everything extreme, the design profession has swung too far in the opposite direction and that a few years down the road, we'll go from oversimplified to overly complex yet again.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Price Discrimination and Customization

It's likely important to prefix this meditation with a comment on the concept of discrimination - as the word itself is so closely linked to politically sensitive issues of race, gender, etc., that it's difficult to consider in its intended context without those issues intruding.    In short, "price discrimination" is an economic concept that pertains to charging different prices to different customers - and for the purpose of this piece, it is intended to deal with reasons for discrimination that can be objectively substantiated.

To further disambiguate, I'm setting aside price discrimination as a concept related to the goal of revenue maximization, which takes as its sole consideration the customer's willingness to pay and, in effect, seeks to inform the decision of the supplier toward the goal of asking as high a price as possible to fully absorb consumer surplus. That is the context in which it is most often considered, but the context least germane to my present train of thought, which focuses more on price discrimination as an effect of cost.

That said ...

Creating a product that is customized to the needs of a specific customer requires price discrimination in the highest degree. In part, it is a matter of financial necessity - where customization for the needs and desires of a specific individual require additional production cost, the additional cost must be borne by someone.  In another sense, it is a matter of ethics that the additional cost be borne by the very individual whose demands necessitated that they be expended.

Said another way, a customer who desires something extra should (and generally does) accept that the cost of the "something extra" is added to the price he is charged for having it. It's not really considered where the "extra" is a discreet product: a customer who wants shoes and a matching belt pays the cost of the belt in addition to the cost of the shoes, whereas another customer who simply wants the shoes does not pay for the belt (provided the two are not bundled by the retailer, such that he must purchase the belt to obtain the shoes).

It becomes slightly less straightforward when the purchase is perceived as a single product, especially a complex one, but my sense is that customers generally understand and accept the concept of additional features that add cost to a basic product: a vehicle with power windows costs more than a vehicle of the exact same type that does not have this added feature.  This comes as no surprise and raises no objection.

And the complexity becomes even greater when hidden factors create discriminate prices for the same good: a shirt costs far less at the factory store than in a department store in another state because of transportation costs; or the shirt costs more when purchased form a shop in a mall than it does from a strip mall because of the higher rent the shopkeeper must pay.

It was simple enough to understand before the Internet came about, but broad knowledge of market details (the price of goods in various places) and complete ignorance of others (the factors that cause the price to be different in various locations) led to something of a calamity: customers cried "unfair" when the same article had different prices in different locations, particularly when the locations were in the same general vicinity (the same item costs considerably more at two shops in the same town).

It's a bit ironic that the notion of "fairness" is raised at all. The alternative approach, to charge the same price in all locations, means that individuals who purchase the item in locations where it could be had for less (lower transportation cost, lower shop overhead, etc.) must now pay more than their fare share to subsidize the cost of making the item available in places where it costs more to provide it. It that sense, the objection to price differences is a demand for unfairness.

Dragging myself back to the notion of customization: the demand of a customer to have a product tailored to his specific needs and desires must necessarily be accompanied by a willingness to pay a price that covers the cost of tailoring it, as differentiated from other customers who accept the "standard" product or have a list of customizations all their own. This is true whether the differentiation is the result of differences in the physical product (an item with or without a given feature) or in the location (an item sold in one location or channel versus another).

This results in an increasing complexity in the structure of cost to produce and furnish a given item to a given customer. For a firm that chooses to customize, there can be no standard price, nor any way to give the customer an expectation of the price until there has been a long discussion of the variables involved.

This places a great deal of burden on the customer, such that many product decisions must be made and communicated to the vendor before a price can be given.  Pricing by feature is fairly standard practice in certain industries, generally those that provide high-cost items that are infrequently purchased: buying a car or having a house built is a very complex purchasing event and customers accept and expect that the price relies on the features chosen for their product. Buying a computer, with all the options and related costs, is likewise complex.

But the same level of complexity is involved in decisions of far lesser magnitude: ordering a hot dog from a street vendor requires the customer to make a set of decisions: what kind of sausage, what kind of bread, what additional toppings to include. However in this situation, the customer's options have no effect on the price of the item, and the vendor merely includes them - but they are not gratuitous: the cost of the most expensive options is borne even by customers who do not choose to have them. Their cost is so negligible that customers are largely indifferent to this fact, and may often be oblivious to it.

In that instance, it is largely a matter of magnitude - a customer doesn't demand a three-cent discount at a deli because he opted not to have mustard on his sandwich, but he might be outraged at a $20/night "resort fee" at a hotel to pay for a pool, sauna, and workout room that he never used during a week-long visit (which hotels get away with because of business travelers who expense their bill and don't pay much attention - another factor entirely).

But because of the freedom of information, customers are becoming increasingly aware of and concerned about price discrimination, and the vendor of a product that can be customized at all must be sensitive to the reaction the customer will have when every modification impacts the price, and especially where invisible factors cause price discrimination, they are increasingly intolerant of it.

And it does seem like a no-win situation: to offer the same product at the same price to all customers requires a great deal of coordination (and even collusion if the same manufactured item is sold through competing retailers), and customers who expect to get a better price for accepting a standard product are hostile to the notion of paying more to absorb the cost of serving more finicky customers.

The net result of this on customer experience is also conflicted, between the customer's desire to have a highly customized product, yet to be quoted a firm price in advance of providing any information whatsoever about the customizations the customer desires; and the vendor's desire to offer an attractive price for a product most people want, and yet be able to serve the demand for customization.

All things considered, it's a problem to which I can see no solution - and what's more, it is a dilemma that more and more industries will continue to face as customers become increasingly demanding of customization.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Leadership and Customer Relations

I recently read John Maxwell’s book on The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, which considers leadership from a non-authoritarian perspective. The author hails from the nonprofit sector (a superchurch pastor), who was a paid staffer who largely managed through committees of volunteers – people whom he could not threaten to gain their obedience. This requires rather a different approach to dealing with people.

It’s an approach that correlates well to customer relations: you wish to motivate people to do something (buy your product), without having the ability to threaten them into doing it, and merely getting rid of the people who do not cooperate with you isn’t a wise option (except in extreme situations where the cost of serving a customer’s demands exceeds their lifetime value).

In terms of leadership, people who most want to be leaders are often the least qualified to hold such a position: they’re the sort who lack the people skills to gain influence and foster cooperation, and seek a position of leadership for the sake of the authority that comes with it, as “I say, you do, no questions” is the kind of power they covet.

To make matters worse, many organizations seem indifferent to the tactics of those they seek to place in leadership positions: so long as they have a track record of achievement, their methods are beside the point. They are lauded for their short-term success; meanwhile the long-term damage they do to the organization and its culture are considered collateral damage and often goes undetected for a long period of time, discovered long after the leader has left the organization to take a position elsewhere and repeat the cycle.

Maxwell’s approach takes a different perspective: leader as motivator, organizer, and coordinator. In his view, the value of a leader isn’t felt until after he has left: if the place falls to shambles behind him, he’s done more harm than good; if he leaves a legacy of success, he has put service to his organization and his people above the need to achieve and dominate. And in the long run, that’s the more productive path.

The same can be said of the way in which customer relations are managed: if people stop buying the day you stop promoting, you really haven’t convinced them of the value of your product and they haven’t made your brand a part of their lives in a meaningful way. When they repurchase, even when your product isn't being pushed, then you know you have provided value to the customer.

I seem to be going back and forth, and will take a bit more time to untangle and assimilate what I’ve learned – I have the sense it correlates well, though i may be stretching to connect the dots.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Meditations on a Paper Jam

I cleared a paper jam in one of the printers at work (a trifling problem that isn't quite frequent, nor quite rare) and then got sucked into a two-hour meeting at which I had nothing to contribute and nothing to gain (ditto) and found myself thinking about the former problem. A few random thoughts bubbled up:

Bad at a Glance Isn't Necessarily Bad

The indicator on the printer indicated that there was a paper jam, and to follow procedures "D" and "Y" to clear it. That much is cryptic ... and opening the front panel to refer to the instructions, this is what I saw:

My reaction at a glance, was that this was an awful design: not only had I been given a couple of cryptic error codes, but I had been referred to this complex diagram that was visually daunting, with a jumble of letters and numbers along with a chaos of arrows showing the solutions to several different problems, only two of which were actually relevant to my situation.

But as I worked through it, it really wasn't that bad. Certainly, the diagram was cluttered and the letters seemed to be in random order (CDPZBRAY), but it really wasn't a problem to find the two procedures I needed and follow the comic-book style sequence for each procedure, clear the jam, and get the unit functional again. It was really quite simple.

This called to mind the value of usability testing: showing your design to a peer to get their input often begins with the same knee-jerk reaction to complexity, which gets aggrandized rather than resolved by a person who is passing judgment at a glance and not really working through the task. The only way you can get good, valid feedback about whether something is usable is to have a person actually use it.

Some People Are Easily Paralyzed

I recalled that, as soon as I had repaired the problem and taken my print-out, someone sitting nearby, facing the copier, rose from his desk and came to get his own print-out that had been queued before mine. My initial reaction was, "What an [expletive]! He knew the printer was jammed and just sat there waiting for someone else to fix it." On further reflection, my opinion has not changed.

But this calls to mind another common problem for design: a user is easily paralyzed and prone to drop off if there is even a minor problem that would take him even a small amount of thought and effort to resolve for himself. It's likely the reason we need to be so persnickety about instructions and error messages - or better still, about holding the developers to doing the extra work that is necessary to make the system smart enough to assist a user in completing a task without ever encountering an error message.

At the same time, this is not a good fit. I've been critical of colleagues who have misused research into bystander apathy (Latane and Darley) to suggest that users will not work through problems at all. Those studies, as well as the copier situation, were the result of group mentality - people do not take action, or take action more reluctantly, in situations where they expect someone else to take action.

The same studies show that people readily take action when they are alone and there is no-one else to provide assistance, so this is likely exaggerated or misapplied when it comes to online and mobile channel, where people do not work as a group. If I recall correctly, around 75% of test subjects took the proper course of action (reported a fire, responded to someone in distress, etc.) when they were alone, as opposed to around 10% when a person was in a group of people.

Knowledge is Slavery

The last meditation, likely more to do with ethics than with design, is that having the knowledge to address a problem and the will to act on it is generally positive - but doing so in a manner that rewards the negligence of others is dysfunctional. And yes, I'm still a bit ticked about the guy who recognized the problem and waited for someone else to fix it.

It occurred to me that the reason a person might do so is that if they demonstrate to others that they can solve a problem, they then become "the guy" whom everyone calls upon to take care of things they could well have done for themselves. Granted, that's whitewash for a no-goodnik in this instance, but it's also quite likely that people whose desks are near a printer are constantly interrupted by others to tend to problems, and maintaining an appearance of stupidity and laziness is a defense mechanism to avoid becoming the official unofficial copier repairman for the office.

The B-side to that argument is being "the only guy" who knows how to do something is job security - but I don't buy that in this instance. Being the only guy who knows how to run cross-tabs in the marketing database to better segment customers is something that is respected, that grants you esteem and makes you head-and-shoulders above colleagues when there's an opportunity for promotion. But being the only guy who knows how to fix the copier, make coffee, and unclog the commode makes you the office bitch when there's anything unpleasant that other people know how to do, and could very well do, but don't want to get their hands dirty.


And with that, it's likely I've meditated a bit too long on this situation and my internal pessimist needs to be put back in his cage for the evening. Hope it's been entertaining.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


Predictability is extolled by user experience and customer service, but seems to be understood in a superficial manner and applied inconsistently – when it is efficient to be predictable. My sense is it’s important not only to operational efficiency but to customer service, and should be more pervasive within the customer service principles of an organization, possibly within its principles as an organization.

On the small scale, we recognize that customers value predictability in a transaction. When a customer gathers products into a virtual shopping cart, they predict that each item they added will be listed in the shopping cart when they are ready to check out. Omit one of their selections on check-out, and customers will be frustrated. Add something to their cart that they didn’t select, and they will be furious. This is because what they predicted did not happen.

The same is true of the customer experience of each individual product. The customer chose to purchase the product because he predicted that it would enable him to solve a problem or fill a need. If this prediction turns out to be false, the customer will not repurchase. At best, he will accept responsibility for making a poor product selection, but his experience of using the product will be unsatisfactory all the same.

The same is true on the broader scale: customers purchase products and services or choose to interact with a firm based on their predictions. They predict that they are going to get something in return for what they give, and the “something” goes beyond the physical properties of the product to the need/benefit that motivated the customer to make the purchase from a given supplier. Where their predictions are correct, they are satisfied. Where their predictions are incorrect, they are not.

Companies also predict their customers behavior, chiefly that they will being paid per the agreement. A company that is not paid for its goods is furious, but has greater resource and support from the legal system to force the customer to render payment than does a customer who, at best, can request a refund of the purchase price, but no other compensation. Companies may also predict that customers will be delighted with their service offering and encourage others to purchase from them, and generally become frustrated or furious when this does not happen, regardless of their own behavior in the transaction – but this may be a separate topic.

The scale can be broadened even further: customer satisfaction with a firm is based on their predictions about the value they will receive from the goods; employee satisfaction is based on their prediction about the way in which they will be compensated and developed by the firm; supplier satisfaction is based on their prediction about the way in which the firm will behave as their customer; investor satisfaction is based on the fulfillment of their predictions about the financial return on their investment in the firm; and community satisfaction is based on the fulfillment of their predictions about the firm’s behavior as a corporate citizen.

Predictability is about trust – or more accurately, trust requires predictability. People of all these groups (consumers, employees, suppliers, investors, and the general public) choose to interact with a firm based on their predictions about its behavior. They choose to continue to interact with a firm based on whether it has been predictable in the past (and generally, that the prediction resulted in a positive outcome for themselves as well as the firm).

Where a firm does not act in a predictable manner, it is not trusted – and when a firm is not trusted, people cease interacting with it, and the firm can no longer exist. As such, predictability is critical not only to the success of a firm in gaining and retaining loyal customers, but in surviving at all.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Customer Service as Social Responsibility

The argument over the social responsibility of companies is a quagmire I generally avoid, as one side insists its a moral obligation for firms to support charitable causes and the other insists it's a violation of fiduciary responsibility that borders on embezzlement. But in the context of such an argument, I heard a phrase that stuck in my mind as having some objective merit:

The social responsibility of a company is to serve to its customers.

I'm keen on customer service in general, and had considered it to be important for more functional reasons (good customer service yields happy and loyal customers) - but the suggestion that good customer service is a moral imperative, and that providing it is related to the social responsibility of a firm, puts it in an entirely different context. The more I mull it over, the more it seems fundamentally right.

The most basic consideration of ethics is passive - it involves refraining from actions that cause collateral damage to other parties. That is, a person is free to pursue his own interests so long as he does not harm others by so doing. There is also a proactive consideration of ethics that indicates a person should (not "must") undertake actions that create benefits for others. Any firm that provides a product or service that people purchase is fulfilling the proactive consideration of ethics, and the fact the people are willing to pay for the product demonstrates proof that the firm has done exactly that.

I expect the opposition to that consideration is that companies do not fulfill their social responsibility is based on the receipt of payment. That is, a charity that provides a product to those who need it is ethical because it gives it away at no cost whereas a firm that sells a product to those who need it is unethical because it receives payment. I disagree with that - regardless of how the operation that provides the product is funded, a social good is rendered to the recipients of the product.

That is to say: nonprofit organizations must have funding for their operations, the same as a commercial organization - and if their operations are ongoing, they must have an ongoing source of funds to continually deliver a social benefit. They collect payment from a different party (donor) to deliver their product to the consumer (beneficiary) rather than charging the consumer directly.

At the risk of stepping into a political minefield, the same can be said of governments who deliver social benefits - though in this case, the funding is involuntary, and as such there is a reasonable basis for the argument that this immediately violates the primary "do no harm" requirement of ethics. I'll step briskly back from that, but it merits consideration when the topic turns to what government ought to "provide" for citizens, in the manner of a charity.

Back to the point: whether the expenses of providing a good are collected from the party that receives the good seems to be of little consequence to ethics. It may, however, have a great deal to do with the efficiency and effectiveness of an operation. In a commercial organization, the buyer and consumer are the same person, and that person is generally attentive to the exchange of values: if what he gets is not worth what he pays, he stops doing business with the company. The firm must therefore be highly attentive to the effectiveness of its products and the efficiency of its operations to ensure its survival. In a nonprofit organization, those who pay for a good and those who receive it are disconnected from one another - and as a result neither party generally considers, or is aware of, whether the good is worth its price, as one receives the good without paying and the there pays without receiving. This may do much to explain the notorious inefficiency and ineffectiveness of nonprofit operations.

Shifting back to the operations of a firm: a company that provides a good or service that addresses a customer's needs at a price that customer is willing to pay has benefitted that individual. If it has 500 customers, it has benefitted 500 members of society. And if it has 500 million customers, it has benefitted 500 million members of society. Apologies for the tedium, but this is leading up to the question: at what point do we drop the "members of" and simply state that a company has benefitted society?

That question is rhetorical, but it seems to me that there are those who would spend too much time considering it: ethics is generally not subjected to the calculation of a critical mass (though ethical violations may be assessed by the number of individuals harmed). The same question would likely not be raised in terms of a charitable undertaking: a charitable organization raising funds for the medical treatment of one person is still ethical, even though it does not provide for all or even of a majority of people in the same condition.

Likely I've strayed a bit far afield at this point ... my original consideration was that a company that serves its customers, and does nothing else at all, is acting in a manner that satisfies the imperatives of ethics in regard to social responsibility.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

An Informed Customer is a Demeaned Customer

Making the customer aware of your business practices sounds like a good idea: with more information about precisely what happens, the customer understands the entire process and his role in obtaining the product or service he wishes to receive. He understands why he is being asked to provide information, and what actions will be taken as a result, the delay that might occur, and the variances that could result - such that even if he doesn't get exactly what he wants as quickly as he wants, he will be more amenable to the outcome.

The problem is, the customer doesn't really care. So long as he gets what he wants when he wants it, the operations of the business are just boring details. In an ideal world, he would get exactly what he wants at the moment he wants it - but in the real world, variances and delays occur, and customers generally have some tolerance when the difference is reasonable. Ideally, if there's a problem with your business operations that cause this to occur frequently, the problem is solved by addressing your operations. But this is a digression.

The point I'm struggling to make is that the customer really doesn't care about the precise nature of the delivery mechanism with which he is interacting and may be bored, confused, or insulted when dealing with a person or process who feels the need to explain to him how the business delivers what is wanted.

An example to concretize this: most customers think that they order a meal at a restaurant, but they do nothing of the kind. They tell their waiter their preferences, and it is the waiter who places an order with the kitchen for the meal to be prepared. So technically speaking, the customer does not place an order.

In that situation, a customer would be less than pleased if the waiter interrupted them immediately, and told them "you're not the one giving orders here," and then explained to them the entire process so that they could better understand the operation of a restaurant and the roles of each of the staff. This would be unnecessary, annoying, and somewhat demeaning to the customer.

From the perspective of the customer, he is ordering the meal. The waiter is merely conveying his orders to the kitchen staff, who will then execute the customer's orders. To be told otherwise is to demean the customer, make him feel disempowered, and to relegate him to a passive role in a process. Perhaps this is the point in certain businesses, but even if the intention is to give the customer greater awareness and understanding, it doesn't contribute to the service experience.

It seems like a minor thing in the context of an isolated situation, but when it becomes a widespread practice, the customer is constantly being told that he is not empowered to do much of anything:

The customer does not book a flight
The customer does not reserve a rental car
The customer does not make an appointment
The customer does not order merchandise
The customer does not reserve a hotel room

When you consider the actual activities involved in providing a product or service, the customer does not do anything but state his preferences to others who perform various services on his behalf.

It may be a result of our evolving culture that the difference between firms becomes apparent: the business that believes "good service" means calling the customer's attention to all the things that the firm does for them takes the perspective that the customer would appreciate the firm more if he were aware of how little he is doing for himself and how much the firm is doing for him.

Said another way, it's the difference between a servant who wishes to call attention to what he is doing so that he will be valued and another who quietly does his bidding without a great deal of ceremony, knowing that it is not his actions, but their results, that are the source of value to the person on whose behalf he acts.

My sense is that, in a culture of customer empowerment, the latter is the appropriate perspective. The customer does not really care about the exactly who does what in the hubbub of activity in the back of the house - so long as he gets what he wants when he wants it,

It is especially important in the digital medium, where customers the sense that they are doing things by interacting with a computer or device. Technically, the customer is almost always removed from the actual moment at which the precise thing he wishes to do is accomplished by someone (or something) else, but still has the perception that he is doing things for himself, not merely communicating his preferences to a system that will do so. To call his attention to the various processes involved, giving him the sense that he is not actually doing anything significant at all, is obsequious and smarmy ... even if it happens to be technically accurate.