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Are customers included in design thinking?

November 13, 2014 By Mark Hurst 5 Comments

As buzzwords go, design thinking is having one heck of a ride. I say this after 20 years of an Internet career that has seen enough fads, trends, and buzzwords to make for a somewhat jaundiced eye to these things.

This one, though. Design thinking is practically a cult. And we need to talk about it.

One of the marks of a truly popular buzzword is that people have trouble defining it. That’s the case here. Check the Wikipedia entry and you’ll learn that design thinking might be a combination of “empathy, creativity, and rationality,” which is pretty vague – or, if you prefer, the rather confabraculated “matching people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and viable as a business strategy.” Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. (My absolute favorite from that page: design thinking is “design-specific cognitive activities that designers apply during the process of designing.” I mean, as Wikipedia pranks go, that’s a pretty good one. Please don’t tell me it’s for real.)

I’ll grant that design thinking in its pure, ideal conception isn’t too far from the worldview I wrote about in Customers Included. As I understand it, design thinking is supposed to encourage innovators to consider customers’ needs, and then design to meet those needs with empathy and with an eye toward business results. I’m all for that method, whether it’s called customers included, design thinking, or any other buzzword.

The problem is that, as I’ve encountered design thinking in practice, it doesn’t much resemble what we espouse at Creative Good. In some ways it’s quite the opposite.

As I’ve seen it, design thinking often ends up as an “ideation workshop,” a kind of modified brainstorming session, where everyone on the team is encouraged to be as creative as possible – using different sorts of tips and tools for lateral, “disruptive” creative thinking. The cliche is that these sessions are full of whiteboards, modeling clay, and pipe cleaners, inviting participants to doodle or mold whatever idea comes to mind. Part Pictionary, part cocktail party, part kindergarten arts and crafts. As long as we’re brainstor- excuse me, ideating well – it should all turn out innovative and great… right?

Maybe not. As fun as these workshops are, I always wonder: where is the customer?

When I ask participants or leaders of these sessions, I’m usually assured that, yes, customers are included. Specifically, customers tend to be called upon at one of these moments:

• Sometimes customers are interviewed beforehand – but not by the whole team. Instead, it’s all handled by a specialized research team, which then writes up the report and emails it around to the team, just to set some context for the ideation workshop. (You can imagine how effective those reports tend to be.)

• Other times, customers are brought to the workshop itself, to evaluate the team’s new ideas. “Here, customer: do you think this is cool? How about this, is this cool?” Sitting in front of the team that designed this prototype and is clearly enthusiastic about it, customers are hardly likely to give authentic, unbiased feedback about the customer experience.

• Finally, if they’re not involved beforehand or during the workshop itself, customers might be brought in at some later point – once all the decisions have been made – just to, you know, “iterate” the design. (Read: provide validation of the team’s great design, and offer small – if any – suggestions for tactical changes.)

The outcome is that design thinking, as I’ve seen it practiced, tends to focus on the team – the team’s creativity, the team’s ideas, the team’s prototypes – while de-emphasizing the customer. As a result, the team makes all the big decisions on its own, without including the customer. Which was exactly the problem that design thinking was supposed to solve.

There’s an important lesson here. As I wrote in this tweet, to advocates of design thinking: all your design & thinking don’t mean much if you don’t spend time with customers beforehand. (Read Customers Included to see what a better process looks like.)

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Creative Good can help your company include customers in the innovation process. Contact us.

The iPhone 6: a basic customer experience review

October 21, 2014 By Mark Hurst 13 Comments

I recently bought an iPhone 6. As I travel around the country giving talks on my book Customers Included, I’m asked quite often about my opinion about the user experience. People everywhere, it seems, are deciding whether to upgrade to this new, larger device.

My recommendation: don’t buy an iPhone 6. While it’s a good device, the iPhone 5 is still a better choice. (I wouldn’t have bought the 6, except that Good Todo needed a revised iPhone app to accommodate the larger screen. The new app is great, by the way.)

Of all of the reviews I’ve read of the iPhone 6, I haven’t seen much about the basics of the user experience. Most reviews cover the latest features that will excite gadget-happy early adopters. But from my conversations with customers around the country, many iPhone users are making the buying decision based on the basics.

Thus, here’s my review of the iPhone 6’s basic customer experience:

The iPhone 6 is too big. It’s an awkward fit into most pockets, if it fits at all. And the larger screen slows down typing, since it requires a noticeably larger range of motion from the thumb. The iPhone 5’s size was ideal, except for users with especially large hands. This raises a question about mobile portability: how big can an iPhone get before it’s no longer a handheld device? (As for the even bigger iPhone 6+ … it’s so large that it’s better considered as an iPad replacement, not a phone.)

The iPhone 6 is easier to drop. The rounded edges (like the old iPhone 1 design), combined with the thinner shape, make it much easier to fumble… that is, unless you’d like to buy a crash guard, which makes the phone even bigger (see above bullet). You also can’t sit the iPhone 6 on its side, as you can with the iPhone 5.

Finally, it’s not quite as elegant as previous iPhones. I had the iPhone 6 on my desk while tapping out a text message, and kept hearing a clacking sound. At first I thought the desk wasn’t level, but no: it was the iPhone itself. The iPhone 6 can’t lie flat, due to a protruding camera lens. I’m sure camera techies could tell me all the reasons why the new camera is superior – but an uneven (and large) chassis seems out of step for the historically elegant iPhone line. Other details are a little off-kilter, like the hollow “ping” that reverberates through the device when plugging in a headset. The iPhone 5 felt more solid, more elegant.

Now, I understand there are strong market-based reasons for these design decisions: first and foremost, the increased competition from ever-larger Android devices. So a short-term strategy of catch-up, by making larger iPhones, might temporarily make sense. (For now, it seems to be working, given the strong iPhone 6 sales so far.)

The problem is that a catch-up strategy follows, rather than leads, the market. Making phones bigger and bigger just is not a sustainable strategy – how much larger can phones get? (Will the pizza-sized iPhone 7 need carry straps, like a backpack? Will the full-length-mirror-sized iPhone 8 need wheels, like a rolling suitcase? etc.)

By reacting to competitors, Apple risks losing sight of what customers want in the long run. This is exactly where cell phone manufacturers were in 2007, when the iPhone arrived: cell manufacturers all trying to one-up each other with the latest and greatest features and specs, while ignoring users’ key unmet needs.

I’ve been an iPhone user from the beginning, and the iPhone 6 is the first time my experience has downgraded from the previous model. Seeing how strong its sales are right now, maybe this is just my own experience. But it’s possible to thrive in the short term while losing sight of customers in the long term. (Anyone remember Nokia?)

Creative Good can help a company get back on, or stay on, a customer-inclusive course. Interested? Contact us.

Everyone has questions about customers. Here are answers.

September 11, 2014 By Mark Hurst 1 Comment

The weirdest thing happens in the last 10 minutes of my “customers included” talks, which I’m giving all around the US about the Creative Good book . I open the floor for Q&A, and regardless of the size of company (startup to enterprise) or the industry (media, retail, finance, etc.), teams often ask the same questions about customers.

Companies today are trying to figure out the customer. The similarities in the questions are striking, regardless of industry or region or team size, or even the role of the executives I’m speaking to. It’s like everyone has woken up to the importance of customers, but no one is quite sure what to do next.

(Well, almost no one is quite sure. One or two executives have assured me that they have pinned their hopes on this or that tactical software-development method – one executive repeatedly told me “we’re winning” – but for the most part, executives understand that this is a complex challenge not resolved with a silver bullet.)

The questions – how to talk to customers, how to organize the team, and how to measure success – are a sign of health, reflecting a team’s desire to continually improve. In my responses I try encourage the team to do the hard, sustained work of including the customer.

Here’s what I suggest:

1. Always start with a strong business case. Customer input only makes sense in the context of a well-formed business question. This also helps answer difficult questions around serving multiple customer types whose needs aren’t aligned.

2. Don’t ask customers what they want. Instead, find out what customers want. Asking customers to design the product for you is unlikely to work.

3. Involve the decisionmakers in the process. Too often executives will avoid direct customer observation because “some other team is doing that.” Instead, all decisionmakers should play a part. And bringing in an unbiased third-party, like Creative Good, to facilitate the process can be very powerful.

As always, contact us if Creative Good can help. We’re the best at helping companies include the customer.

Are online experiences getting better or worse?

August 21, 2014 By Mark Hurst 1 Comment

As the Web turns 25, it seems to be the moment when old-timers (myself among them) look around and ask, “Are things getting better or worse online?”

The original sin of the Internet, Ethan Zuckerman writes in the Atlantic, is the underlying business model. Advertising and intrusive surveillance allow users to access services like Gmail and Facebook for “free” – quotes used here because they’re obviously not free – rather than simply asking customers to pay.

The Internet with a Human Face, which I linked to a few weeks ago, is really worth reading if you haven’t taken the time. Maciej Cegłowski, who founded Pinboard (which I highly recommend in my recent Cool Tools interview), delivers a strong indictment against the harmful effects of Google’s business model on the user experience online.

Email Is Still the Best Thing on the Internet, writes Alexis Madrigal in the Atlantic. Not only is it not dead, as people have predicted, but it’s proven surprisingly resilient on mobile devices. (There’s still the question of how to manage your email, a skill which you can learn in three bullet points.)

Doomed to repeat it, writes Paul Ford, referring to programmers’ recurring attempts to “fix” email and todo lists with an endless series of new apps and platforms. (Personally I prefer my own todo list, Good Todo, which solves both problems – and as it turns 10 years old this year, has longer usage than any of the tools mentioned in the column.)

The bad customer experiences from Comcast and Time Warner are likely to continue, I argue in this Huffington Post article by Tim Stenovec.

On the other hand, today we have Wikipedia, and Meetup, and Duck Duck Go – all services that didn’t exist 25 years ago. There’s plenty to improve online, but plenty to celebrate as well.

Customer experience and the choice between Lean/Agile and waterfall

August 14, 2014 By Mark Hurst 4 Comments

Agile agile agile. As companies in every industry move to create digital products and services (and customer experiences!), every team I talk to has some comment on Agile. This is, of course, today’s preferred development method for all things digital – much like its counterpart, Lean, takes much the same approach from more of a product management perspective.

But many teams are still grappling with basic questions: what exactly qualifies as Agile? And is it better than “waterfall” (the older development method) at creating the all-important good customer experience?

I spoke recently at the Agile Executive Forum alongside some very skilled executives who have lived the “Agile transformation” that so many companies are talking about. It got me thinking about how to describe Agile, and answer those questions, in a simpler way.

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In some parallel universe, there’s New York and there’s San Francisco, but no way to travel between those cities. Lots of people want to travel the NYC-to-SF route and are willing to pay. Two project teams start out: one builds a train, and one builds a car.

Waterfall is building a train, and Agile is building a car.

The railroad gets built, and the first train starts rolling from NYC to SF. Halfway across the country, the customers say, “Actually, we’ve changed our minds – we want to go to Los Angeles.” The train drops them off in San Francisco and people say, “You dummies, we said we wanted to go to Los Angeles and you still dropped us off in San Francisco!” The train – representing “waterfall” development – had no way of rapidly responding to changing customer needs. And so the railroad begins laboriously building a new train line to Los Angeles (but when that’s done, customers will have changed their minds and want to go to Seattle instead).

The second team, building a car, represents the Agile approach: it’s able, in theory, to allow for course corrections in the middle of the journey, based on data that comes in after the trip starts.

What’s common across both methods, and perhaps more important than the choice between Agile and waterfall, is the basic foundation of good engineering practices. (Plenty of teams run around shouting “agile,” like they want to build a car instead of a train, but have no idea how to assemble a transmission!) If you have a choice between a well-engineered waterfall project and a slipshod Agile project, you’ll do better with waterfall.

So let’s suppose you do the “right” thing and build a car factory, allowing customers to drive cars from NYC to to whatever west coast city they want to visit. But then the business still fails. Why? No one buys a single car, because customers are suddenly flocking to your new competitor, which is named JetBlue. It turns out customers do want to get from NYC to LA, but they don’t want to drive such a long distance. Wrong customer experience. The Agile car project is a flop because it didn’t take into consideration the full business context.

Lessons for any team considering Lean-Agile processes:

• Make sure you understand the business case, and that it’s informed by strong customer insight. (This is the piece that Creative Good consulting can help with, and which most teams skip over.)

• Be sure that your fundamentals of project management and development are sound. This is more important than following a particular method.

• If you’ve done all of the above, then consider whether to dive into Agile, waterfall, or some other method. If the market could change quickly, probably use Agile. If it’s a static, well-known challenge – perhaps an infrastructure or re-platforming project – choose whichever method (and it could be waterfall!) will get the milestones achieved with the lowest cost and highest quality.

And whatever you do, make sure you include the customer.