Category Archives: customer experience

Customer experience needs to be holistic

Organisations must take a holistic approach to customer experience, otherwise they run the risk that their weakest link will undermine the investments they have made in other areas.

Although products and customer touchpoints (such as call centres, websites and high street stores) have seen substantial investments over recent years, many organisations are not addressing non-customer facing aspects of their operations that have a significant impact on the customer experience.

Following a customer activity in to the organisations systems and processes

A few times I’ve been engaged by clients to follow key customer activities through an organisations systems to look for inefficiencies and opportunities for improving the customer experience.

It is fascinating to see how following a simple customer activity, such as opening a new bank account, reveals issues such as the incompatability of back-end systems, double-handling of data, etc – all of which result in delays in a customers ability to open a new account, and an unnecessary opportunity for errors to creep in to the process.

Virgin Mobile and the iPhone

These thoughts were sparked off by a visit to my local Virgin Mobile store. I have been trying for a number of weeks to get a new iPhone. Demand appears to be heavily out-weighing supply in Sydney at the moment, and after exhausting all the stores in my vicinity, two weeks ago I ended up resigning myself to going on a waiting list.

At the time of going on the list I was told that the phones should be available within one or two weeks.

Having patiently waited two weeks without any contact from Virgin Mobile, I decided to visit my local store this morning. I was informed that not only had I not moved up the waiting list, but that they had no idea when the next delivery of iPhone would be, nor any idea as to how many would be delivered.

Who should I vent my anger at? It appears wrong and unfair to take it out on the Saturday staff who, if they are to be believed, are dealing with a severe lack of information. The issue seems to be distribution. Does that mean it is actually Apple’s fault, or is there someone in between Virgin Mobile and Apple who I should be venting my anger at?

Organisations need to take ownership of the holistic customer experience

Upon reflection my frustration is definitely vented at Virgin Mobile. An organisation needs to take ownership of the experience their customers have. Ideally Virgin Mobile should have insight into the delivery dates from their distributors – it should be part of their contract.

In turn this information should made available to local Virgin Mobile outlets so they can pass on accurate information to customers, rather than having to rely on “we usually get them in every one or two weeks”.

But my local Virgin Mobile outlet isn’t completely blameless. They should take ownership of their customer’s experience, do everything they can do to obtain accurate information on stock delivery dates. Even if they can’t get this information, they should be proactive in contacting customers that have been waiting on the list for a period of time. I should get the feeling that they are on my side.

A simple call from my local outlet to explain that they are still awaiting delivery would give them an opportunity to convey a shared sense of the frustration for all that this weak link in the customer experience causes for all.

So my wait goes on. I long for the day when more organisations will deliver end-to-end services that offer a wonderful customer experience rather than individual gems in a sea of frustration.


Light-touch centralisation: creating glue for a disparate web presence

Work I’m conducting at the New South Wales Department of Education and Training has given me cause to reflect upon a series of projects conducted by the BBC since 2001 around improving the holistic user experience of the organisations websites, i.e. creating some ‘glue’ to hold the experience together both navigationally, visually and contextually.

Some history

Pre-2001 the BBC’s web presence was frequently referred to a loose collection of GeoCities, i.e. a very loosely bound collection of disparate looking websites.
The major problems affecting the site at this time were:

  • Lots of individual websites each with their own look and feel, but no brand or navigational consistency between sites
  • Little or no referencing between related content owned by different areas of the organisation (information silos)
  • Incomplete content, duplication of content and/or partial duplication of content resulting in lack of clarity around any individual site as being a definitive source on any topic
  • Limited collaboration between areas of the business
  • Ineffective search

In short, a highly decentralised approach to commissioning, designing and maintaining their web presence. And all this in the early 21st Century from an organisation generally heralded for their innovative approach to the adoption of new technologies. What hope for the rest of us?

These issues are far from unique to the BBC. In fact, nearly every organisation employing more than 100 staff suffers from these problems on their intranet, but commercial imperatives often force companies to mend organisational fractures where their public-facing internet site is concerned.

Why I’m blogging about the BBC is that, rather uniquely, they were actually affective at addressing the problems, and what’s more there are lots of great morsels around the internet about the projects they undertook.

Decentralisation or centralisation

Many organisations when presented with the same set of problems oscillate wildly between the polar extremes of a highly decentralised or highly centralised web presence.

A common response is to:

  • Chastise those that own the sites and take ownership away from them
  • Mandate that all sites must use a consistent set of templates/designs
  • Put in place an approval workflow process that involves sign-off by some Machiavellian Mr (or Ms. or Mrs) Big figure who knows what is right and wrong

This centralised approach chugs along for a few months or years until:

  • People realise that many of the rogue sites have reappeared
  • Content owners are so disenfranchised by the rigours of the mandated processes that they no longer care about the content and are watching is get out of date
  • Content owners lose touch with the flourishes that can only really be applied when you have direct control over the presentation of information
  • The central resources who are entrusted as guardians of the site become a bottle-neck to the timely delivery of content

After a few more months or years the organisation, almost certainly under new internet leadership, asks itself why on earth did we impose central control? And they actively work to break down the central controls, liberate the sub-sites and the whole sorry saga starts over again.

Light-touch centralisation

The BBC took a very different approach. Through a series of projects they created a small core set of centrally created and maintained resources, they mandated a small number of “thou shalt” diktats, and generated a far larger number of recommendations and principles.

Some of the projects the BBC embarked on were:

  • The redesign of the BBC homepage. This project is commonly referred to as The Glass Wall project.  The PDF tells the story around the redesign project.
  • An overhaul of the search engine to enhance findability around the entire network of sites, i.e. federated search. Matt Jones’ excellent presentation on the project, BBCi Search: Why search is not a technology problem, is a great source of information on the project and the problems it was designed to resolve.
  • The development of a topic-based A-Z to replace the previous categorisation structure based on the structure of the organisation. Helen Lippell’s article on Boxes and Arrows, The ABCs of the BBC provides a case study  of this project
  • The creation of a consistent masthead and footer to be applied on every BBC site.
  • The definition of a set of design and other guidelines for all BBC sites. The most up-to-date incarnations of these can be found at the BBC’s website.

General overviews of the projects can be found in a couple of papers from Martin Belam, Managing ‘glue’ at the BBC and Gaining online advantage: Building an effective web presence in a large organisation.

As well as these specific projects, they also defined a series of principles, as detailed by Tom Loosemore on his Tomski blog, The BBC’s Fifteen web principles.

The result of these projects and initiatives is what I’ll refer to as light-touch centralisation. By this I mean a series of common, centrally created elements that appear across all websites. They provide an environment in which the local sites can be visually diverse, and yet have enough consistent and commonality that end-users don’t have to re-learn each and every site.

Many elements have evolved since their initial inception, but the lineage of these projects can still be seen across all current BBC sites. For example, sites as diverse as Top Gear, BBC Learning and BBC News have a brand and navigational consistency, yet maintain a visual freedom that enables them to look consistent, but radically different.

BBC - Learning (20090611)

Any organisation looking to break free from the decentralised | centralised yo-yo would be fools not to at least explore these projects in more detail.

I consulted to the BBC on user research and user centred design during some of the period while these projects were conducted. Certain of my observations are based on my memory and hearsay. I thank Anthony Colfelt  (who worked for the BBC at the time) and Phil Barrett (who consulted alongside me during this period while we were both at Flow Interactive) for pointing me in the direction of many of the materials referenced here.

Counter arguments to homepage advertising

It is a commercial reality that online advertising is a necessity for many organisations. As any digital marketeer will tell you, the click-through rate on online advertising is staggeringly low (think of a low number, add a decimal place and a few 00’s kind of low). To counter the low click-through rates in most situations marketeers play the numbers game and place dominant advertising on pages which attract the biggest number of visitors, typically the website homepage. The result is yet more visual clutter on a page that is typically fairly cluttered to begin with.


All fine and good eh, the organisation derives maximum profit from advertising?

I am convinced that there is a compelling commercial argument to not having advertising on pages, such as the homepage, where people need to be able to navigate clearly. Here are a couple of counter arguments…

What is the impact of advertising on the 99.99% of us that don’t click on the ad?

Homepage drop-out rates are a big issue on many websites. Now I don’t want to blame this entirely on advertising, but certainly dominant advertising doesn’t help people complete the task that brought them to the site in the first place.

Adverts frequently employ highly distracting tactics, such as animation, which make it very difficult for a person to focus on the rest of the site for a sufficient time to click on the best link to help them nearer towards their task. During usability testing I have frequently heard people say that they’d click on something quickly just to get off a page with overwhelming adverting.

The upshot of this is that people end up at the wrong parts of the website where they can’t complete their task. This results in people either turning to alternate service channels that are more expensive for the organisation, such as call centres, or worse still, people giving up and seeking out a competitors site to satisfy their needs.

What is the cost of this to the organisation? It is a complicated calculation, but my feeling is that it certainly cuts into a significant slice of whatever revenue is derived from homepage advertising.

Wouldn’t click-through %’s be higher with more targeted advertising?

Why not place adverts in places where you know more about why a person is visiting your site, i.e. anywhere other than the homepage? Better still, place the advertising on pages after the person has completed their reason for visiting the site. This is when people are more susceptible to distractions.

Sites with sophisticed approaches to monitoring web metrics, such as Amazon, target these seducible moments to great effect. For example, on Amazon directly after adding an item to my shopping basket I am taken to a page that provides me with recommendations based on the item I’ve just added to my shopping basket.

Applying the principle of seducible moments to a site such as would mean uncluttering the homepage with take-over advertising and instead placing adverts for things such as credit cards in the Money area of the site, or alongside news articles about financial related topics.

10 tips to help foster innovation

The need to be right all the time is the biggest bar there is to new ideas. It is better to have enough ideas for some of them to be wrong than to be always right by having no ideas at all.

Normally one is only taught to think about things until one gets an adequate answer. One goes on exploring while things are unsatisfactory but as soon as they become satisfactory one stops. And yet there may be an answer or an arrangement of information that is far better than an adequate one.

Both quotes from Edward De Bono‘s Lateral Thinking which I have been re-reading for the first time in many years.

The book, originally published in 1970, echoes the kinds of issues and concerns I still hear from clients today. For example, over the last few weeks I’ve heard many organisations lament the difficulty of creating green field, genuinely innovative products and services. They have talked about “being trapped within existing paradigms” and “unable to escape the way things are currently done”.

What is worse is that they express difficulty in finding people capable of helping them think differently about their particular situation. Is it because so many UX practitioners spend so much time using convergent thinking approaches to help optimise solutions? Is it because of a dearth of UX practitioners with a background steeped in design theory? Is it because organisations aren’t willing to create the time to explore alternate approaches or commit the resources to do so? Or is it some other reason entirely?

Whatever the real reason, experienced UX practitioners need to know when to use divergent thinking tactics and when to use a convergent approach.

The following are ten tips how to encourage divergent thinking within a workshop environment.

1o tips to help run a successful innovation workshop

  1. Set rules and roles. Providing a constructive environment for creativity requires a few rules and roles. There is only really one rule; 1. no critiquing of ideas until a follow-up evaluation session. There are only three roles; 1. a facilitator to guide the session and pre-prepare topics and stimulus materials, 2. a note-taker to capture the ideas that are generated during the meeting, and 3. a number of participants.
  2. Don’t make creative sessions too long. Around 30 minutes, and certainly no more than an hour, is enough to generate a range of ideas that can then be analysed, evaluated and turned into concepts.
  3. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can do it on your own. Although genius design does happen, a collaborate process involving a small group is far more likely to consistently produce fresh ideas in a timely manner. Anywhere between 5 and 15 people is a good number. Less experienced facilitators may prefer to start with smaller groups.
  4. Don’t expect magic to happen quickly. Many teams, especially those within usually traditional, formal, “always right” organsations, require time to warm up to divergent thinking. Quick warm up exercises may be required to get the group out of the business-as-usual convergent thinking mentally and into a useful headspace.
  5. Don’t stop when you encounter the first acceptable idea. Although it may end up being the best idea. Continue thinking, exploring and sketching alternate solutions. At the very least these will validate that the acceptable idea is in fact the best idea, and by continuing you may actually identify a better idea that would otherwise have gone unnoticed.
  6. Don’t critique or criticise ideas before others are given the chance to consider them. By focusing on the interesting aspects of an idea can spark other more practical thoughts, but if you focus on the impracticalities you may kill an idea before it has chance to breath.
  7. Don’t fear failure. To have one great idea you’ll have to have many not so great ideas. The trick, as Scott Jenson puts it in The Simplicity Shift, is to “fail fast”.
  8. Trust the process even when all around you are in doubt. Chances are you’ll have people who think what you’re doing is “fluffy”. You might even have people who storm out of a workshop because they don’t see the value in what you’re doing (I certainly have!), but even in the darkest hours you need to believe that good will come by encouraging people to think different about their products and services. The very worst that can happen is that a company realises that there is no better way than the way they currently do things. Validation of the status quo is a valid output from the activity provided the group has spend time exploring truly divergent alternatives.
  9. Focus on quantity of ideas not quality. You have forever to evaluate which ideas are good and bad. Don’t run the risk of stymieing radically different approaches by focussing on refining a single idea even if it does initially appear to be the most viable.
  10. When all else fails… consider the existing patterns, models and processes within your product or service. Focussing on and remodelling sub-components can help break down the existing norms and enable free-er thinking about the bigger picture.\

The price of overselling expectations

Reading Nick Bowmast’s post, The price of cookies when booking your flight, got me thinking about the difficulties organisations face when they lead their customers to expect a “better than the rest” type of service.

Having set high standards we expect organisations to consistently meet these levels of customer experience in all our dealings, and we are more likely to talk about it when they don’t. I had a similar experience myself with Singapore Airlines (see Disjointed brand experience). Like Nick’s post, mine also received a prompt response from a representative of the airline.

What this highlights for me is the importance for organisations to take a holistic view of customer experience. It isn’t enough to just consider one channel or product, organisations must take a strategic view and consider the impact of every customer interaction with the organisation. Only then will they be delivering a great customer experience.

Air New Zealand’s eCommerce Manager’s response is understandable from a technology perspective (certainly from someone who has done as much work with booking engines as I have over the years), but not acceptable from a customer experience perspective.

If your advertising is “our low fares have nothing to hide”, the customer expectation is that “I will get this price”. If the marketing department is setting high expectation levels, the fulfillment teams must meet these or else customers will talk, and may soon become ex-customers!

How to create better products? Say no by default

I stumbled across Derek Sivers post, Say NO by default, via Joshua Porter’s Designing for the Social Web (which I’m sure I’ll write about once I’ve consumed it).

The post struck a real cord with me. Particularly the following:

Say no by default – in design, business, and even life. Simple is beautiful. Instead of doing something “because you can”, consider thinking “only if necessary”.

Also the anecdote about how Steve Jobs defended the simplicity of the iPod/iTunes concept to independent record label executives:

In June of 2003, Steve Jobs gave a small private presentation about the iTunes Music Store to some independent record label people. My favorite line of the day was when people kept raising their hand saying, “Does it do ___(x)___?”, “Do you plan to add ___(y)___?”. Finally Jobs said, “Wait wait – put your hands down. Listen: I know you have a thousand ideas for all the cool features iTunes *could* have. So do we. But we don’t want a thousand features. That would be ugly. Innovation is not about saying yes to everything. It’s about saying NO to all but the most crucial features.

The post is bang on the mark. Features should be argued in rather than out. Products should focus on doing a few things really well rather than being all things to all people.

Another favourite quote of mine on this subject comes from Richard Seymour:

Innovation starts with people, not with enabling technologies…if you forget this you risk delivering feature-rich rubbish into already overcrowded lives.

Targetting seducible moments

I’ve just got back from holiday to find that both the airline I travelled with (Air New Zealand) and the travel company I booked with (Flight Centre) have sent customer satisfaction survey emails. Is this the seducible moment for survey participation?

It would also be a rather seducible moment to influence my next holiday plans, i.e. if you liked your trip to the South Island of New Zealand here are some other trips you might want to consider, or to capture user reviews of particular aspects of my trip.

Are any travel companies actually exploiting these entry-level social networking techniques? I know when I worked on the launch of Opodo back in 2000 they were considering such things down the track, but my subsequent move to Australia means I never get around to booking through their site.

As for the surveys, I do hope both Air New Zealand and Flight Centre are balancing their quantitative research with a good bit of qualitative research.