Friday, May 27, 2016

Culture Squelches Technology

In the present day, there exists the technology to propel most industries into the future, or drag them into the present: production, distribution, supply-chain management, and customer relations could all be greatly improved.  But in spite of a great deal of happy talk about innovation, very little innovating is actually being done, and most industries have remained largely unchanged from the way they were half a century ago.  While the technology exists, culture has not embraced it – and until it does, progress will remain superficial.

Culture is notoriously difficult to influence.  A culture evolves over decades and centuries by adopting practices that were at one time highly functional and efficient – it is, in effect, an aggregation of the behaviors that make people successful.  Or more aptly, it is the behaviors that made people successful in the past, and are presumed will achieve similar results in future.  And against the historical success of culture, any new proposal is at a disadvantage for lack of proof: we cannot know if something that has never been tried will work, and prefer to stick to the tried-and-true.

It is for this reason that most industries are conservative and stodgy, deeply fearful of disrupting their cash flows.   Some industries have very long traditions as they have been in existence for centuries, some even for millennia, and have been profitable under their existing business models.   And those that have stood for centuries have seen others come and go, enjoying a few years or decades of success before collapsing.  So there is a deeply held belief that doing the things that have always been done and making marginal efficiency improvements is the best path to long-term survival.

The culture of an organization is groomed and maintained by its leadership, so when it’s said that industries cling to tradition and fear change, what that really means is that its leaders cling to tradition and fear change.  Those who lead achieved personal success by following the well-worn path and avoiding risk that comes with change, and expect that their continued success will be guaranteed by doing he same things that were done in the past.  The power structures that are in place are designed to protect them against newcomers, and galvanize organizations against new ideas.

While old leaders speak enthusiastically about innovation, they do not allocate their budget accordingly.  The biggest allocation of funds is to maintain the legacy systems (both technical and human systems), and innovation gets little to nothing.   So their words and actions are disjointed, and their actions reflect their true values, which are invariably to maintain tradition and avoid change.

The next generation of leaders of a firm are the rank-and-file employees – and a stodgy and risk-averse company (or industry) attracts stodgy and risk-averse employees, those who will carry on the tradition of stagnancy.   Those who are innovative want to work in an environment that will enable them to pursue their passions and avoid conservative companies.  Those who have never worked in a long-standing industry expect they will be restrained and smothered, prevented from putting their best skills to use, their ideas dismissed summarily.   Those who have experience in such industries know this to be true.   So there is no “next generation” of leaders to move a firm forward – as that generation is being trained to do the job the way they are told and keep their new ideas to themselves if they wish to rise through the ranks.

As a result, there is almost no innovation in large and established firms, and what little innovation exists is largely imitation of practices that they presume to have been the cause of the success of other firms.   It is only in the smaller firms, those who have no established culture, that innovation occurs – there is no “usual” way of doing business and everything must be invented from scratch, including the culture of the organization.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Complex Solutions to Simple Needs

The technological sophistication of the present age is a double-edged sword.  On a basic level, our attraction to products is based on a desire to get more benefit with less effort.  Sometimes technology makes our lives better by enabling us to accomplish more with less effort; sometimes it makes our lives worse by requiring us to put in much more effort to accomplish less; and often it’s both at once.

Another fundamental concept is that a “benefit” is the fulfillment of a need, and that human needs have changed very little for tens of thousands of years.   We need to eat, and buying a meal from a vending machine fifty feet from our desks is far more convenient than going hunting with a sharpened stick.   We need to communicate, and calling someone is far more convenient than tracking someone down and going to speak to them face to face.   We need to travel to a remote location, and hailing a taxi and taking a plane is much more convenient than travelling a thousand miles on foot.

In the early stages of product evolution, solutions are simple: the need to communicate to someone is addressed by a telephone, which simply has a microphone and speaker, a bell to ring when there’s an inbound call, and a way of entering the correct number to place a call to a specific telephone.

In the middle stages of product evolution, the efficiency and effectiveness is improved.   The telephone still has the basic features but now it can be carried anywhere, the device can store numbers so they don’t have to be remembered, and it can record calls when we can’t answer.  It’s even possible to send a message in text when we are not able to speak.

But beyond that, technology begins to evolve in unfortunate ways: we can speak a name rather than typing it, but have to invest time in programming the device to understand the idiosyncrasies of human voice or learn to speak in an affected way so the device can understand.  The device itself is so cluttered with other features that we have to hunt among dozens (or hundreds) of things to find the phone application.

There are many reasons that this happens, between technophilia (wanting to add everything that can be thought of), panic (feeling the need to match what the competition offers), or greed (wanting to sell the device to as many people as possible).   When these or any other motivation causes a producer to lose site of the core value proposition (what benefit is delivered for how much effort), then technology has gotten out of hand.  It is no longer a servant to the needs of the user, but an antagonist or at least an obstruction to the user who seeks to serve a need.

And the result is the tragic world of the modern product – so laden with unneeded features and functions that it is expensive to obtain and difficult to use.   Periodically, and quite rarely, some firm recognizes that things have gotten out of hand and offers a pared-down version of the product that restores the value-to-benefit proposition – they create a product that does just one thing and does it exceptionally well, delivering benefit with minimal effort.   But then, the cycle reboots: the Apple iPhone and Google’s search engine took the market by storm when they simplified their solutions, but have both become cluttered with add-ons and gimmicks that distract from and diminish the value they originally provided.

It is, perhaps, an inevitable cycle that has only become accelerated by the present age, and the strength of will to control greed and fear seems ever less common in the present culture.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Standardizing Customer Experience

A common fallacy and much-favored fantasy of customer experience design is the notion that there is “one best way” to go about performing a task – buying a car, managing an investment portfolio, communicating with friends – toward which all people would gravitate if only it were put before them.   This never ends well, and often ends tragically.  The fatal flaw is not in the execution, but in the very belief that customer experience can be standardized.

Scientists readily admit that their study of the human mind is very primitive.  Even studies of the brain as an organ are confounded by its unfathomable complexity: 100 billion neurons, each of which may have up to 100,000 dendrites and axons, each of which communicates with others through a complex and scalar combination of electricity and chemical signals.   At one time, it was theorized that a single brain could have more than 300 trillion constantly changing connections, and this number has since been increased significantly as understanding of even the basic mechanics has expanded.

In simpler terms, the variations in brain activity are for all concerns infinite.  There is no standard brain, no standard mind, no standard behavior, and no standard customer.   The various ways that people think and act are grouped into hundreds of cultures, and each culture is merely a sloppy amalgam of what is presumed to be commonalities.   And even people of largely identical culture can have radically different perspectives.   And with all of this in mind, the attempt to discover the “one best way” for all people, for all minds, for all brains, is a fruitless enterprise.

From a practical perspective, we can easily define the most efficient way of accomplishing a task – the fewest and most simple steps to effect an outcome – and declare it to be “the best way” to accomplish a goal.  But customers will reject it in favor of less efficient but more psychologically comfortable ways, and sometimes may reject the goal itself.

Standardization is an imperative of the Industrial Era – it’s far more efficient (hence cost effective) to make millions of products that are identical clones of one another than to customize products to suit the needs of each customer.   And this mentality has carried over into the service industry: if we can force customers to yield to our preferred processes, we can serve them more efficiently.   But “efficient for us” does not guarantee “desirable to them,” as many have discovered through ghastly and expensive failures.

In the present day, the imperative is for personalization and flexibility, making products and the processes to obtain and use them as flexible as possible to accommodate the myriad of ways in which a customer might approach any given task.  While it is sometimes claimed that it is impossible to know, this excuse no longer holds water – we are now connected enough to the customer to observe their behavior in granular detail, but few bother to do so, and many fail to take what they observe into account.

Flexibility also does not necessarily mean chaos, if a solution is elegantly designed.   Consider the most popular word-processing program: there are over 30 ways to make a word or phrase appear in boldface.  The existence of so many options does not render the program a chaos, as each user is able to find his preferred method, and may even use different methods in different instances to accomplish the very same goal.   They are not compelled to learn “the one best way” to set text in boldface, and are not restricted to it when some other method would be more suitable.   The myriad of options are simply and obsequiously available for them to choose at their leisure.

And this is the gold standard of customer experience – the service each customer wants, the way that he wants it.   While customers may satisfice in the meantime, the market and the future belongs to the firm that will undertake the effort to provide it.   It may take rather a long process of evolution toward this end, but given the competitiveness of present-day markets, it is inevitable.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Overserved and Irritated

I had another unfortunate customer experience that set my mind in motion: I went to a store to buy an item, knowing exactly what I needed and exactly where it was located, and was stopped on my way four times by employees asking me if I needed their help.   I didn’t need their help and was becoming increasingly vexed by their constant interruptions – and probably overly so because I was on my lunch break and needed to make the purchase quickly and get back to the office and felt they were slowing me down.

My sense was that they must have had an employee meeting that morning, where the manager stressed the importance of being helpful to customers – that, or the store had a shoplifting problem and the managers knew that offering to help is a subtle way of letting people know they’re being watched – and though this made it a little more understandable, it was no less vexatious to be constantly interrupted while performing a task with unsolicited and unnecessary offers of help.

This irritation lingered after I returned to the office to participate in a design session, in which a group of people (most of whom weren’t designers) were gathered to address a problem with an acquisition flow.  The problem with the flow, which was quite obvious, was a vague and slightly offensive question on the page where there was a high drop-off rate.   Reword the question, provide some in-context assistance, and the problem would likely be resolved.

Unfortunately, this is not what happened: one of the non-designers in the room insisted that the question had to be worded exactly as written for “legal reasons” (in addition to being a non-designer, he as also a non-lawyer, and I’ve never seen a legislation that mandated the exact wording of questions) and that the in-context assistance needed to be displayed for all users, rather than “hidden” behind a help icon.   So everyone who visited the page, even the 70% who would have answered that question without assistance, would have to read a couple of paragraphs before proceeding (or likely, would read two sentences, skip the rest, and ignore any other text presented in the rest of the flow).

Obviously, this was a terrible idea – but the person in question was the fair-haired child of a powerful executive and could do no wrong, so he had to be appeased in spite of the damage it would do.  This happens all too often, and it pains me to inflict bad design on the customers, but in the long run I expect I will be able to fix it, as this solution would not cure the drop-out rate and I will make a case for a better solution in future.   But I digress …

The point is that after having a horrible experience in a retail store with employees whose unsolicited offers of unneeded help were irritating, I returned to the office to find a similar practice taking place in the online channel, and had to swallow that as well.

I’d belabor the point further, but I expect it’s already been made, and going on about it would turn a useful observation into a rant.   Service means helping the customer, but good service means knowing when help is needed and – more to the point – recognizing when help is not needed and staying discreetly out of the customer’s way.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Everyday Communication and Crisis Management

During times of crisis, when public attention is focused on a brand in a negative way, executives are very attentive to the stories they tell.  They wish to position their brand in a positive light, to convince people that they are honest and credible, and to present their brand as being honorable and earnest.  

Traditionally, most corporations garnered very little public attention outside of times of crisis and could operate with little regard to public opinion.   But in the present day of the Internet and social media, they are under constant scrutiny – yet many continue to ignore the public and operate as if no-one is watching until a crisis arises.  And as a result, crises are more and more commonplace.   Media feeding frenzies are no longer a rare occurrence – with 25/7 news coverage, they are constant.

Corporate PR departments are largely dismissive of social media.  Those who blog and post remarks are regarded as attention-seekers and wannabes who are largely ignored by the public.   And for the most part, this holds true.  However, even the mainstream media has become sensational, and “the news” has become more of an entertainment venue where dramatic headlines lead poorly researched stories, with apologies and retractions buried in low-visibility locations a few days later.

The most effective way to guard against such attacks is to maintain a sterling reputation with consumers and the public – such that any outrageous claim will be received with disbelief and the ravings of tabloid journalists fall on deaf ears. 

Doing so means establishing and maintaining creditworthiness and respect, long before a crisis arises.  Brands that operate in this manner as a matter of course find it easy to weather a crisis; those that only do so under extreme conditions find it difficult to persevere.