Sunday, June 30, 2013

What are Emotions, Anyway?

Human emotions are a significant component of customer experience.  Emotions take precedence in determining whether they choose to continue to interact with a brand.  Most customer experience practitioners would agree ... but at the same time there seems to be very little valid consideration of what causes users to have emotions, such that when someone speaks to the way a user "feels" it is often very subjective: ask why they think a user would feel that way and the answer is seldom satisfactory.

This is likely because emotions themselves are poorly understood, and even in the present day there is a great deal of mysticism about the cause of emotion, or how the term "emotion" is even to be defined.  Emotions seem to be random and unpredictable, an even in the present age of reason they are characterized as invisible demons that attack without warning and for no apparent reason.   To speak intelligently about users' emotions requires a clearer definition and understanding of the subject.   

An emotion is a cognitive state 

To begin, it is important to acknowledge that emotion is a cognitive phenomenon - it has to do with the way that we think.   The perspective that emotions and thoughts are two different things, particularly that they are opposing forces, has been a serious impediment to understanding emotion because it declares emotion to be separate from the rational mind.

We do not feel instead of thinking - we feel because we think - and the relationship between the two is interactive.   The relationship between the two is that emotion is the environment in which thought occurs.  Our thoughts influence our emotions (thinking about a situation makes you angry) and our emotions influence our thoughts (when you are in an angry mood, you are inclined to have negative and hostile thoughts).

It should also go without saying that emotions are not resident in any part of the body outside of the brain.   We speak of emotions such as love, disgust, and lust as being felt in the chest, intestines, and other parts of the anatomy, but recognize that the physical sensation is separate from the emotion that exists in the mind.   

An emotion is a cognitive state that may arise in response to a stimulus

Likewise, emotions are generated within the mind - while we may identify some external source that caused an emotion to arise, we recognize that the emotion comes from within.   The suffering of another person did not send pity into us, but the sense of pity arose from within at the sight of human suffering.  It is a reaction in the observer.   This the reason that something that causes one person to experience emotional does not arouse the same emotion in others.   Each person reacts differently, such that an emotion "may" arise in response to stimuli - it also may not arise in response to stimuli.

The term "stimulus" is purposefully vague because there are various kinds of stimuli that may evoke an emotion: it may be sensory perception of events in the external environment (something we hear makes us angry), somatic perception of events internal to the body (a sharp pain in the abdomen makes us fearful), or even a thought within the mind (something we think about makes us sad).

It should also be consider that emotion may be a cumulative response to multiple stimuli: something that we hear when we have a stomachache and are thinking about the weather forecast - an it is possible for these three to occur simultaneously.  The complexity of the compound effects of multiple stimuli can likely be sorted out, but "an emotion" (singular) is due to "a stimulus" (singular) and the next stimulus creates a change in our overall emotional state.  That is, the subject had a stomachache before he started thinking about the forecast, and was thinking about the forecast before he heard something that piqued his interest.

An emotion is a cognitive state that may arise in response to a stimulus, based on an assessment 

The notion of "assessment" brings me to maintain that emotions are cognitive in their origin.  The reason that people have different emotional reactions, if any at all, is not simply because they are subject to a given set of stimuli, but because they assess the relationship of the stimuli to themselves.   That is to say that on any given day, we are subjected to thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of stimuli, but we react only to a few of them.   All of the rest of the stimuli pass without causing us to feel anything at all, and whether or not we have an emotional reaction has to do with the way we assess a given stimulus.

Assessment is not always a protracted process - it can happen in an instant.   The sound of a hiss in high grass causes a sense of fear without deliberating over what might have made that noise.   "It's a snake!" is an assessment that does not require much cogitation, and it's likely many of our baser emotions derive from survival instincts that cause us to react quickly and without much meditation.   The fact that we feel a bit sheepish when we later discover this assessment was wrong does not mean we didn't make an assessment, just that we didn't make a particularly well informed one.

Assessment is also not always an objective process.  To be objective, a person has to step outside himself to assess the situation from a disinterested perspective.  And while a person may be capable of doing so, his initial reaction is always relevant to himself.  However, there are also emotional states that can arise during the course of objective assessment, so I'm sticking to  "an assessment" without insisting that it be subjective.

Assessment is also not always a conscious process.  We are often confounded by our emotions, particularly when we look back upon an emotional reaction and cannot identify why we felt the way we happened to feel.   However, my sense is that this does not mean assessment is not done.   Because it may have been a knee-jerk reaction, we may not recognize the assessment.  

Consider that the method of psychoanalysis is largely focused on getting a patient to talk through through an emotional reaction so that he can recognize and understand the reason he experienced an emotional state.   While we sometimes choose not to think about such things (or have a hard time admitting to the assessments that were made) there is a reason that we experience emotions, and the reason is generally a process of rational assessment (though the rationale may be seem irrational).

An emotion is a cognitive state that may arise in response to a stimulus, based on an assessment of its relevance to existing concepts of propriety

Assessment is an evaluative process that compares one thing to another, and in the context of emotion it is an assessment of a stimulus against a concept that previously existed.    There is likely more to be said about the concepts that are employed in evoking an emotional reaction (our concept of self, our concept of others, our concept of reality, our concept of justice, our concept of relationships, etc.) - but for now I'd like to keep it generic.

Relevance is the first qualification: I previously considered that the reason a person experiences or fails to experience emotion is that not everything he perceives is assessed, and the reason something would be assessed is that it is relevant to the person himself.   We are far more likely to feel emotion if something bad happens to a ourselves rather than to a another person, or if it happens to someone we know rather than to a stranger, or if we identify with a stranger to whom it has happened.   The less relevance to self, the less likely emotion will arise.  And if there is no relevance, then there is no emotion.

I may be going out on a limb to suggest that the relevance that is assessed is in relation to propriety - but I am unable to conceive of an example in which it is not so.  That is to say that we have a concept of the way things ought to be, and our emotional reaction is largely based on whether the stimulus we have experienced matches to our pre-existing concepts.

For example, the difference between a comment and an insult is that the latter causes us to experience emotion because we assess that it is not right or proper for someone to say such a thing.  That is, what was said does not match against our existing concept of self (or concept of another person if we are not the object of the insult) and this causes us to become upset or angry.   Likewise, when we see something happen that should not happen, we experience emotion because our concept of physical reality or ethical appropriateness is challenged.

That is not to say that emotion only arises due to mismatch: when a stimulus affirms our existing concepts, it too may still cause an emotional reaction.  Consider that the opposite of an insult is a complement, which generally causes positive emotions if we happen to agree with the compliment (though it again becomes a mismatch if we do not feel the complement matches our existing concepts).  This, too, may become filigree if I chase after the specific reaction when the relationship is to reinforce or contradict the notion of propriety.

In the context of customer experience, an emotion is a cognitive state that may arise in response to a stimulus, based on an assessment of its relevance to existing concepts of propriety

Finally, I'm tacking on the qualifier to identify the definition as being relevant to customer experience.   There are many competing definitions of emotion and a great deal of conflict even within specific fields.   My purpose in this meditation was to consider emotion in the context of customer experience, because what is germane to the interest of practitioners in that profession is the way in which we consider the way in which customers will react to the stimuli we present to them as being relevant to the brands we represent, and to adjust those stimuli to result in emotions that are supportive of their relationship to and subsequent concept of our brand.

That is not to suggest we consider the customer to be a blank slate on which our intentional stimuli create an emotional outcome.  It is equally important to understand the customer's emotional state, as part of the mental model, that is created by circumstances and experiences beyond our control - the fact that you don't know what is already in the subject's mind is what makes applied psychology such a messy affair - but if there's any hope of untangling the mess, it must be based on an approach to emotion that does not consider people to be driven by demons, but by thoughts that can be understood to explain emotion and better react and leverage the emotional aspects of customer experience.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Creating Stakeholder Value

I read a book on the topic of relationship marketing that was written a decade or so ago, when the idea was still relatively fresh, with an eye toward whether much progress has been made in shift from a company-in-control transactional approach to a customer-in-control relationship one.   I am left without a clear conclusion: in some ways, significant progress does seem to have been made - but in others, vendors still seem to be stuck in an outdated mode.

There likely is no denying that the tenor of markets has changed significantly in the past few decades: firms are no longer in a position to dominate their customers, as there are many competing suppliers for any given product or service in the marketplace and the products on offer have become commoditized.   But there is also no denying that, given the behavior of a vast majority of firms, commerce continues to cling to the glory days of mass production and mass marketing when customers were compelled by lack of options to tolerate poorly designed products and abide the difficult behavior of indifferent producers concerned only with their own benefit and convenience.

My sense is it's likely a generational issue: the individuals who are in positions of authority in commercial enterprises came of age in the era when supply was insufficient to demand, such that any firm that was able to bring product to market was able to find success in spite of glaring inadequacies because consumers had a lack of alternatives - and as the silent and boomer generations make their final exit from the workplace and hand the reins to generations who are less accustomed to prostrating themselves in reverence to vendors, the last traces of that outdated attitude will also be retired.  There seems to be little hope of it happening sooner.

But at the same time, much of the philosophy learned by the next generation of leaders was written during the era of supplier-dominated markets, so it seems entirely likely that the change will be incremental, over a number of decades, as the new leadership will continue to the principles of their predecessors.  The notion that the change of regime will result in a change in perspective does not necessary hold true, because the new leaders will be selected by the old - and the old leaders demonstrate a preference for those members of the next generation who are compliant with, rather than opposed to, their own way of thinking.

That is to say that the "new" leaders can be expected to follow closely in the footsteps of their predecessors because anyone who had a significantly different idea was likely unacceptable as a candidate for management.  Thus, Generation X managers are not likely to make an overnight transformation, and the Millennial are likely to live up to their alternate moniker of "the echo generation" in following in the traditions of their Boomer parents.   So likely, even two decades from now, the topic of relationship marketing will still remain poorly understood and even more poorly applied.

There is, perhaps, potential for an accelerated evolution when the present financial crisis draws to a close and buyers have the flexibility in their budget to reward the firms that provide the best designed products and the highest quality of service  rather than settling for whatever is selling for the lowest price that meets their most basic functional needs, somewhat adequately and with a considerable amount of difficulty and disappointment.  But even that is likely to be a slow transition because consumers settle int habits as well: consider that those who lived through the great depression developed miserly habits that they carried through the rest of their lives, and it would seem to be a reasonable conclusion that there will be no great revival of the markets, and we may yet be a few more generations from departing from the transactional model.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Semantic and Episodic Memory

I stumbled across a reference to Tulving's distinction between semantic and episodic memory that I sense may have some relevancy to the resolution of the demand for consistency versus the demand for relevance in customer experience, which I mentioned in a previous post.     I should probably give warning that this meditation is going to veer into the quagmire of cognitive theory for a time before making its way back to the topic of customer experience practices - and that said, here goes ...

Tulving's Distinction

Endel Tulving made a fundamental distinction in the way that memories are encoded: he classifies a memory as semantic if it is a piece of knowledge without a context (a blue shirt) and episodic if the knowledge is tied to a very specific context of a particular incident (the blue shirt a subject was wearing on the day his first child was born).

Semantic memory is highly relevant on the conceptual and functional levels: to know what a blue shirt is does not require ever having worn one, and to distinguish a blue shirt from a white one does not require the subject to recall an occasion on which each color of shirt was worn.  The knowledge exists in the nature of an atom, not tied to a molecule, which can be picked out of the memory storage to be used, alone or in conjunction with other atoms, quite readily.

Episodic memory does not have such relevance.   Subjects who recall events from their past quite often recall a plethora of details that have no significant relevance - the color of shirt he was wearing on the occasion of the birth of his child is an extraneous detail that has nothing to do with the event in a functional sense.   He might also recall what he ate for breakfast that morning, the color of the nurse's scrubs, a song that was playing on radio when he got the news, the color of the carpet in the waiting room, and a myriad of other details that are related only by proximity to the event.

However, that's not to say that episodic memory is frivolous, as it is the basis for most procedures: when we seek to perform a task that we have performed in the past, we draw upon an aggregated memory of past experiences to guide us in our present behavior - such that among the inconsequential details are other bits of data that are quite important (such as remembering that, when jump-starting a car, the red cable attaches to the positive terminal and the black to the negative, and never vice-versa).   That is to say that without episodic memory, a person would not benefit from learning, but would have to think his way through every problem as if it were the first time he had ever encountered it.

Of particular importance is the fact that episodic memory is much stronger and easier to recall than semantic memory.   Asked to recall what color of shirt he was wearing on the fifth of March, 1972, it is likely even a person of exceptional intelligence would be completely unable to answer, even if he concentrated on the matter for some time.   But if he is mindful (or reminded) of some significant event that occurred on that date, he is far more likely to remember the detail in the context of that event, even decades later.

The event itself doesn't necessarily have to be highly significant, though my examples might suggest so.   If you ask a colleague what they had for lunch a week ago, they would be unlikely to be able to answer, but seed their memory with an episode, such as a discussion you had on that day, and they can recall the detail in the context of the day's events:  "We met to discuss that at eleven o'clock, then I went back to my desk to check my email, then I went to the cafeteria and had a bowl of tomato soup and a chicken salad sandwich."   This will come out along with many other completely irrelevant details about the events of the day - but it will far more likely be uncovered by an episodic rather than a semantic cogitation.

Memory and Experience Design

The relevance of Tulving's distinction to user experience, particularly to consistency and relevancy, is that consistency touches upon (weaker) semantic memory rather than (stronger) episodic memory.  That is to say the ability to recognize a warning message requires the user to have learned the appearance of such a message as a semantic unit, rather than their ability to call to mind a previous episode in which such a message was encountered.

This is particularly important to experience design in that our first impulse is to reduce friction by crafting the elements of experience to be familiar to the user, similar in a semantic sense to the elements that they recall:  a warning message is different to an error message, and different to an informational message, not merely because the color of the text is different (semantic) but because the user sees that specific treatment each time an event of a given kind occurs.

Consider also that the experience we are providing to the user in the present will also serve as a memory that will provide this familiarity in future interactions.   Given that the user will discern from the present context of what is before him that the text is meant as a warning to be heeded, its various qualities will first be experienced in the context of a task (episodic) and, with repetition, will be atomized for semantic consideration.

And of particular importance is the experience of the present, as separated from past and future, because the ability to discern from context without relying upon memory of either kind facilitates the cognitive task by not requiring the user to access memory of either kind.

Memory as Facility

Ultimately, memory is a facility that can be leveraged when necessary to complete a task, but unless the task is a mnemonic test, memory itself it is not the purpose of a task.   In terms of customer experience, the minimization of effort, physical or mental, is a method of facilitation - and to rely upon memory is to increase the difficulty of the task, a practice that should be approached with discretion and, where possible, avoided.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Consultants, Imitation, and Espionage

"Never outsource competitive advantage" is a mantra of mine, an axiom that I believe to be based on sound premises that bears repeating because it is too easily forgotten.   Hiring consultants and contractors makes perfect sense from an accounting standpoint - to get a limited amount of the skills for which you do not have sufficient need to have a permanent full-time employee - but from a strategic perspective, it is a mistake: it is the equivalent of divulging your secrets to double-agents in the field of industrial espionage.

The notion of industrial espionage may seem quaint and outdated, but it is very much a practice of the present age and has become so commonplace as to be considered a normal and reputable method for doing business.   There is essentially no difference in the motivations of a present-day corporation who hires a consultant to benefit from the knowledge and insight they gained working for other firms and that of the eighteenth-century manufacturer who hired spies to infiltrate his competitors and bring back the "secrets" that made their operations more efficient and effective than his own.

This focuses primarily on the upside of espionage: a firm gets access to the strategy of its competitors for a nominal fee, compared to the cost and effort of developing its own.   Even this is a losing game, as a firm that depends on others to show them the way is aiming to be second-best, on the assumption that they will discover how to eventually leapfrog their competition (somehow).

It seems obviously self-defeating, but it has worked for certain firms, particularly in the electronics industry in the Far East.    Consider that Japanese brands are not typically innovative - they do not offer entirely new products nor any features or functions that are absent in their competition - but instead they make the same goods more cheaply by a more efficient manufacturing process.    The fact that they did not compromise quality to save cost, and in some instances even improved quality, has made them successful.   The giants of the electronic industry are essentially making designer knock-offs in greater quantity and lower price.   And it has been profitable for them to do so.

The downside of espionage is visited on the innovator - the firm that has been infiltrated by spies loses its distinct competitive advantage when the spies divulge their secrets to others.  Or in modern terms, when the consultant leaves your firm and shares the knowledge and experience he has gained there with others, your competitive advantage is instantly lost to your competitors, who have saved the cost of research and development by stealing your ideas.    It is essentially the same as if the firms poached knowledgeable employees as a means to recreate your practices.

Essentially, the consultant you bring in-house to help you solve problems is an agent of industrial espionage - or more aptly, he is a double-agent in that he divulges the competition's secrets to you and then divulges your secrets to the next firm that hires him.   The consultant is also an independent double-agent in that he has no loyalty to any country (or company), but is an independent mercenary who is seeking his own wealth.

The analogy to espionage fails because espionage was a covert matter, whereas consultancy is done in plain sight.    Consultants advertise the firms for whom they have worked, much as a merchant shows off his complete line of wares: here are the companies I have worked for and whose secrets I will sell you.   The firm that hires a consultant knows that it is buying those secrets, and should be well aware that their own logo will be on the consultant's resume, and their own secrets will be up for sale  to the next buyer.

That said, it's likely possible to have the rose without the thorns if you manage consultants carefully, such that you can extract the knowledge they have gained from their previous employers while maintaining some level of secrecy about your own firm - but this is not common practice.   In the early stages, a consultant is brought up to speed, given a complete diagram of your production facility and the blueprint for every piece of equipment (figuratively speaking, but sometimes literally) before he tenders any information or advice.    This knowledge becomes part of his inventory, even before he has delivered anything of value to your firm.

The same can be said of contractors, though by definition they should be used for their labor rather than their expertise, they are often used as consultants by firms that do not distinguish between the tasks of designing and building.  As such, they function as little spies, whose knowledge of your firm is limited to what they have encountered while doing their job - but in the present day, that can be considerable, and even more valuable than what the consultant knows because consultants discuss what the firm might do, whereas a contractor sees what is actually being done.  There can be no subterfuge when hiring a contractor.

The problem with espionage today, as with many things, is not that there are cunning and sinister enemies who are willing to do unethical things to gain access to your secrets.  Instead, the problem is your own loose lips - your competition does not need to be cunning and sinister when you are indiscreet and careless.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Relevance Trumps Consistency

There have been more than a few instances in which I’ve seen some very bizarre things in the context of a user experience that were defended according to the principle of consistency, and while I can acknowledge that consistency has its merits, they pale in comparison to the principle of relevance.   I don’t see this as being a situation in which the two must be negotiated to a delicate balance – but instead I firmly maintain that relevance trumps consistency, every time.

It is said, and rightly so, that the value of consistency to user experience is that it alleviates uncertainty by enabling the user to perform the same task in the same way each time.  As much as humans delight in novelty, they take comfort in familiarity.  Having to learn a new way of doing a task adds to the "cost" of obtaining the benefit and the risk of not being able to succeed at all - and when the margin of value-for-effort is slim, proposing a change has the potential to unbalance the equation.

This is true of the functional aspects of simple tasks (when you withdraw cash from an ATM, anywhere on the planet, you go through the same steps every time and do not need to learn a different procedure) and to the sensual aspects of emotional experiences (when you return to a restaurant, you expect to be able to order the same entree you had before and get the same sensual experience of its presentation and flavor).   Customers can be quite peevish when suppliers make changes to the core values of a product or its associated service experience when they liked what they got the last time.

There is a certain level of dismissiveness to the value of this familiarity, when a provider changes something and declares that their “new way” is something that customers will prefer to the "old way" (in the sense that "old" is always bad and  "new" is always good).  And very often, such claims are either disingenuous or narcissistic, failing entirely to consider whether the novelty that they assume to be an improvement may be seen as an unwanted change by their customers … until then customers leave.

But at the same time, the defense of consistency for the sake of avoiding friction is also a factor in companies who more gradually lose their customers for their failure to remain relevant to changing customer needs.   Particularly in terms of non-functional benefits, such as fashion, tastes change and the firm that refuses to change with them is left behind.

But relevancy is more than mere taste: it is often a reflection of changing needs, whether the change of needs is permanent or temporary.   The temporary aspect is more likely due to implementation of user experience design in the context of a specific task-flow design, as the change over time is more of a strategic adaptation of the firm, but in either situation a problem arises when consistency is valued over relevance, and the result is a design choice that is inappropriate.

General Motors attempted to accommodate this evolution of customer needs, albeit badly, by developing a transition plan to move customers through a family of brands as they progressed through life (Chevrolet in their youth, Buick or Cadillac later in life depending on their financial success).   Porsche seems to be doing this now by offering sedans and SUVs for customers (under the same brand) who transition into family life and find a two-seated roadster to be impractical.  Both firms seem to recognize that consistency is only valuable if the customers' needs remain consistent as well - and that customers' needs do not remain consistent means consistency becomes counterproductive,  Or more to the point, a rigid devotion to consistency is a deliberated ignorance that consistency is less valuable than relevance.

In terms of design, consistency is a quality that can be appropriately used or inappropriately misused – and the distinction between the two is relevance to the experience of the user.   If the user is ignored, which is often a precondition of a very bad decision, consistency among elements of an experience can seem to be a good idea, and one which certainly makes things more convenient to the processes of the service provider.   But when relevance is considered, which is generally a precondition of a very good decision, the distinction between functional and dysfunctional consistency should become apparent.

And perhaps that is the best mediator of the argument, and the best defense of relevance in the face of an argument in favor of consistency.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Contextual Levels of Customer Experience

It seems to me that the notion of "customer experience" is used with a vague sense, if any sense at all, that "experience" has an object and occurs within a context.   The object is fairly easy to define (it is typically some aspect of a brand, at least insofar as the facilitator is concerned), so what I'd like to meditate upon is the context, specifically the level at which and experience occurs.

This is likely to be rather tedious, but there's value to the tedium: often we are conflicted in designing user experiences because we are focused on a specific level of experience to such degree that we fail to consider the impact on other levels of experience - and as such we end up making grave mistakes that are detrimental to both the customer and our brand.

A ready example is making the experience of the purchasing process beneficial, when the product that is purchased renders no benefit to the consumer in the context of their journey to serve a specific need.   Our motivation to do so is based on both altruistic intent (to make the purchasing experience simple and pleasant) and mercenary intent (to make a profit from an immediate sale), but detrimental to the customer's long-term interest (there will be disappointment when an easy-to-buy product does not address the need for which it was purchased) and our own long-term interest (a disappointed customer will refuse to consider the brand when they have a legitimate need for it).

That aside, it's also useful to be able to consider the context of experience in order to better understand what, exactly, we are doing when we mean to orchestrate and experience and to determine whether the course we are considering is productive (or at least not counterproductive) on the various levels of experience.

That said, I'll get on with it ...

Experience of an Interaction

Interactions are the molecules of customer experience - molecules, rather than atoms, because they are made up of smaller parts that are the individual actions and reactions between the customer and the brand.   Interactions are very quick, and are often not inherently meaningful - there are likely very few occasions in which a single interaction accomplishes a transaction.

A few examples of interactions:

  • The customer sees an online advertisement (an action taken by the brand) and clicks it (the customer's reaction to that action)
  • Clicking the advertisement (the customer's action) causes them to load the brand's landing page (the brand's reaction)
  • The landing page presents text (action) that the customer reads (reaction)
  • The landing page presents a form (action) that the customer fills in (reaction)

The last example is likely more than a single interaction, as a form that contains multiple fields presents a number of interactions: the form presents a "name" field into which the customer enters their name, the form presents an "email" field into which the customer enters and email address, the form presents a "submit" button that the customer clicks.

I struggle to describe what distinguishes a single interaction from a complete transaction, but my sense is that the individual interaction does not suffice to accomplish a task - that is, when the user enters an email address, nothing happens.   When they click the "submit" button, something happens, but unless they also tended to the other interactions (providing name and address), the task is not complete.

Experience of a Transaction

This leads to the consideration of a transaction, which is comprised of all the interactions necessary to complete a task, but not necessarily all the interactions necessary to accomplish the greater goal of satisfying a need.

Consider the transaction of shopping at a retail store.  The actions that occur from the moment the customer arrives at the store to the moment they leave constitute a single transaction (buying detergent) - that is to say that entering the store, walking the aisles, selecting a bottle of detergent, carrying it to the cashier, paying for it, and carrying it out are all interactions that occur to accomplish the immediate task of obtaining detergent, but do not suffice to satisfy the need to have clean clothing, because the customer must conduct a separate transaction (doing laundry) using the detergent in order for their goal to be fulfilled.

The definition of transactions seems poorly defined in common use.   Considering the example above, many would consider the checkout process to be a separate transaction from the process of gathering merchandise - but to return to the definition of interaction, the checkout process is not meaningful if performed in isolation (to walk into a store and go to the checkout without merchandise is pointless) and therefore cannot be considered a self-contained transaction, but merely a discrete set of interactions within the context of a transaction.

This also calls to mind that many actions are not directly related to the transaction.   If the customer reads the label on the detergent to ensure that it is compatible with his high-efficiency washer, this is a supportive interaction (the customer feels confident in proceeding) but not a necessary one (he could buy it without reading the label).   Moreover, there are a number of "wasted" interactions along the way (the customer reads the labels of several other brands he does not purchase - which is entirely needless to purchasing the one brand he ends up choosing).   This likely bears further consideration, but I will set it aside for the present.

The concept of "task" seems largely arbitrary, but fairly intuitive to define: to accomplish the goal of having clean clothing, requires an individual to

  1. Obtain the necessary resources (detergent being just one of them)
  2. Gather the clothing that needs to be washed
  3. Run it through the washing machine
  4. Transfer it to the dryer
  5. Fold or hang garments
  6. Transport the garments to the a staging location (bureau or closet) where they will be retrieved for wear

The sequence of tasks seems largely linear - it is possible to fold laundry before washing it, but entirely pointless - and the steps seem discreet, though there may be gaps between them (a person may load and start the washing machine, leave their home, and return later to transfer it to the dryer).

I also have the sense that I'm not quite clear on the distinction between transaction and interaction here.   Running the clothing through the washing machine is not a complete task, as having a washing machine full of soggy but clean clothing is not particularly useful, not is the transaction of placing clothing into the drier possible (or advisable) if the clothing has not been washed first.

It could well be that the concept of "transaction" is entirely subjective: an individual may feel that "doing laundry" is a transaction, and that the transaction is not complete until all the steps are done; or they may feel that "folding clothing" is a task that they start and finish in a manner that is dependent on the preceding task being completed.

I likely need to ponder this a bit further - perhaps it's something in the nature of choosing an unfortunate example - but I do have confidence that "buying detergent" and "doing laundry" are two discrete transactions even though there is interdependency and sequential necessity between them.

Experience of a Journey

A customer journey can be rather neatly described as everything that occurs from the moment a need is discovered to the moment it is satisfied - though it's likely necessary to specify that "a need" is meant as a single instance of a need rather than every instance in which a given kind of need arises in the customer's lifetime.

For example, the journey surrounding the need of thirst begins the moment that an individual realizes "I am thirsty" to the moment that their thirst is sated and the need no longer exists.   That is:

  1. The customer recognizes they have a need
  2. The customer identifies what they must do to satisfy the need
  3. The customer recognizes they must have other things in order to take the action to satisfy the need
  4. The customer considers how to obtain those things
  5. The customer acts to obtain the things
  6. The customer acts to satisfy the need
  7. The customer decides (perhaps inherently) the need has been sated

Transactions are undertaken at each step of the journey, from beginning to end.   The degree to which a firm wishes to participate in the journey likely depends on the nature of their product: those that provide goods are likely concerned with steps three, four, and five whereas those that provide services are largely concerned with steps two and six.   But from the perspective of the customer, the full journey must be completed to satisfy their need.

My sense is that the current hubbub over customer experience is a broader consideration of the journey - that is, a traditional manufacturer is interested in selling their product regardless of whether it is satisfactory in satisfying the need for which the customer undertook the journey.    Moreover, customer expectations have become (if they weren't always) that those who provide goods and services to them take an interest in the completion of the journey, and may in some instances be argued to want their service providers to accompany them through more of the journey than they traditionally have (and some firms are interested in this as well).

Experience of a Relationship

The customer's relationship is a long-term phenomenon that consists of multiple journeys over a long period of time.   I am not entirely clear on whether customers consider the "relationship" to be germane to a specific need, a specific product, or a specific brand and I have the sense that all three relationships exist and are considered in a way that is somewhat interdependent.

That is to say that a customer may consider his relationship with hunger, consolidating all instances in which he undertakes a journey to satisfy that need in the context of his relationship to that need.   In essence, the customer splits the journeys he has among various activities and brands - to be hungry for something specific is a subset of the larger relationship with hunger.

A customer may also consider his relationship with a specific product of journey type.  "Also" is significant because the two levels of relationship are not exclusive.   Within the context of his relationship with hunger, he may consider "restaurants" to be a separate relationship than "vending machines" or "grocery stores."   The relationship may be further subdivided to consider his relationship with restaurants to be a parent of several children - his relationship with certain cuisines and restaurant formats (a relationship with full-service continental restaurants is different to a relationship with quick-service sandwich shops).

A customer may also consider his relationship with a specific brand: the entirely of his experience as a patron of a specific restaurant (or a specific location of a specific restaurant), and this is the level at which companies are most interested in pursuing, though there is some interest in gaining greater share of wallet by becoming the customer's preferred provided in a category or for a need.

It's also been suggested that the relationship with brand is more than merely a consolidation of journeys.  That is, a customer's relationship with a sports car may begin when they are a child who dreams of someday owning one (even though their first journey to purchase one will not begin for many years) and continue even into the years in which they are too old to drive, but reminisce about the years in which they owned the brand.  There seems to be some merit in this, such that the span of a relationship is much broader than the already broad notion of "from the time they bought their first to the time they sold their last."

Experience of a Lifetime

In the broadest possible sense, the customer's entire lifespan can be considered to be an experience, made up of many relationships, journeys, and transactions.   I do not expect that any firm is ambitious or foolhardy enough to attempt to be involved in the customer's entire lifetime, but instead chooses (if by default) only certain aspects of the customers lifetime during which it wishes to be involved.

At the same time, the lifetime experience is the ultimate level at which customer experience exists, and a level at which brands should consider the impact.   This is often reflected in high-level documents such as mission statements, in which the firm considers not only the purchase, its consequences, and the interactions it has over time, but the net impact that interacting with the firm has on the customer's lifetime experience.

For example, it is in the interest of a credit card provider to consider not only the use of the card at the register, but the impact that having consumer credit has on a person's life.  This includes not only the immediate results of using the card for purchasing, but the ultimate result that the facilitation of these purchases has on the customer's life: the benefit of being able to obtain things when needed (and the precipitating benefits of those purchases) and the detriment of being in debt over the course of their entire life.

This is extremely unwieldy, which is likely the reason that firms often back away from confronting such a huge proposition - but providing a good or service that is routinely used, and that makes a positive contribution to the customers' experiences of a lifetime, seems to me the ultimate goal of being in business at all.


This simple meditation has gone on quite long enough for my liking, but my sense is that there is a great deal more to be considered - some of the ideas are not as clear or refined as I would like or need further development.   I've noted a few things for future exploration and it's likely that this will be on my mind for quite some time.  So there's more to come, to be certain.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Critical Thinking and Creativity

I've been reading a primer on critical thinking, which has been both edifying and frustrating.  It's been enlightening in taking as a structured approach to a habitual process, and getting back to basics has helped to identify some of the steps I've routinely skipped and unproductive patterns I've fallen into as a matter of convenience.

It's also been frustrating in the realization of how seldom rational thought actually factors into decisions: how often reason is abandoned or patterns of thought follow obvious fallacies, based on superficial (if any) consideration - to take, sometimes after great deliberation, a route that is more convenient, more familiar, and more efficient rather than seeking an effective solution to a problem.

Likely this is immediately heading in the direction of a cranky disillusioned rant about how decisions that consume obscene amounts of resources and affect untold lives are made with very little valid thought, which was not my original intent, but if it were not so there would be little point in suggesting that a structured approach to decision-making was at all beneficial.

Yet the more I try to approach the topic for a positive angle, the more I find myself reminded of instances in which a rational process of thought was not merely neglected, but intentionally rejected in favor of gut-feel instinct, emotionalism, or social pressure.

It's particularly problematic in user experience, where the suggestion of presenting the customer with a straightforward and logical process is overwhelmed by knee-jerk reaction, the whim of a silverback, or the sense that reason is inapplicable because "people don't think," only to be replaced by a sloppy and obviously flawed alternative that is in the long-term best interest of neither the customer nor the firm.

I'm not having much luck at the moment in silencing my inner pessimist, and apathy is setting in with a vengeance, so I'll need to end this rumination, likely before it's started in earnest, and make a note to return to it when I'm in a better frame of mind.    Ironic, is it not?

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Setting the Industry Standard

Yet again, I've become entangled with someone who repeatedly uses the phrase "industry standards" as a justification to avoid doing additional work to rectify a process that is thoroughly awkward and illogical for the customer.  I considered this problem a year or so ago, and some of the issues are the same - it's an excuse for doing bad work, and helps to make sure that the service of all firms is commoditized to a low level of quality - but what occurs to me presently is that firms don't seem to recognize how industry standards are developed, and the power they have to change the standards by their own behavior.

In this case, it should have been obvious - the person I was working with (or attempting to work with) represents a leading brand in a very small industry. So small that if I mention what industry it was, most people will know the exact firm I am complaining about (hence, I won't). What this means is that whatever they choose to do, good or bad, will likely be imitated by the flock of smaller competitors and become the industry standard. Which is all the more reason to try to do something good (and difficult for weaker competitors to imitate) rather than get away with the least possible effort.

Firms in a position of industry leadership have the power to set, or at least influence, industry standards without consciously meaning to do so. But even lesser known firms in more crowded industries have the potential to set standards in the same manner. In any competitive market, attentive firms watch their rivals closely with an eye toward whether an action taken constitutes a new threat. When any firm does something new, others consider whether they should imitate it.

Actually, that is a bit generous: going by my experience, other firms will not consider whether they should imitate it - they will decide to imitate it without much consideration at all. Too often, I've been in situations where it is proposed to do what another company is doing with no consideration of the results that would be achieved or the negative consequences that might arise as side effects - just monkey-see-monkey-do.

That's a much more difficult problem, which would be a long diversion from the present topic, but it's worth mentioning because it means that whatever you do, others will follow without much thought, and the industry standard becomes something that most firms do without understanding why it is done - they're just trying to be like everyone else (and still wonder why their products are regarded as commodities by customers, which could be yet another red herring).

I also have the sense that it might be an interesting stunt to give other firms in the industry the distinct impression that you intend to do something incredibly stupid so that they will attempt to beat you to market with an idea that will do significant damage to their organizations, and then to not actually do it yourself.   That's a little bit evil, perhaps, but I have the sense that you could get away with it every once in a while and, even if they caught on, it would keep your competitors guessing as to whether what they see is a feint or an actual stratagem.

Dragging myself back to the point: anything that any firm does has the potential to set or adjust the industry standard, intentionally or otherwise, which makes it all the more crucial to consider any decision in consideration of what's best for the customer, rather than in imitation of what the competition is doing.

The decision to follow industry standards is the decision not to be competitive, not to be better for the customer, not to wriggle out of the commodity trap in which an industry is mired. Perhaps there are situations in which this approach is strategically advantageous ... but I tend to doubt that this is generally true.