Why I still believe (on the 18th birthday of Creative Good)

January 07, 2015 By Mark Hurst

A friend told me once that as he gets older, he becomes less certain about many things, but more certain about a few things. I’m increasingly feeling the same way, especially on a day – like today – that marks a milestone.

Eighteen years ago today, I started Creative Good.

I was living just outside New York City in a small apartment where I sat down at a desk – actually the same desk I’m using as I type this today – and began writing. Most websites were too hard for people to use, and I intended to help companies improve. I had almost no money, almost no business experience, and very little idea of what I was doing – beyond a belief that companies could perform better if they paid more attention to their customers.

Now 18 years, two boom-and-bust cycles, and several hundred projects later, I can say confidently: we’ve done good work helping companies include their customers. But most companies still, urgently, need to improve.

I’ll admit that questions sometimes gnaw at me: am I sure we’ve been right? Is the customer experience really as important as I’ve always said? Is it possible that looking at things from the customers’ perspective is just a sideshow, a nice-to-have diversion, a secondary detail to the real work of generating profits?

Take, for example, JetBlue’s recent changes. The famously customer-friendly airline – exceptional in an industry dominated by not-so-customer-friendly giants – is bringing in a new CEO, and a new direction. The changes come amidst Wall Street complaints saying that – get this – JetBlue is “an overly brand-conscious and customer-focused airline.” Wow. Overly customer-focused.

The problem, apparently, is that JetBlue could extract more profit from customers by treating them poorly – much like some of their competitors. Tim Wu, writing for the New Yorker, explained “why airlines want to make you suffer,” nailing it with this conclusion: “When an airline like JetBlue is punished for merely trying to treat all of its passengers decently, something isn’t right.”

Of course, market forces in the airline industry are a lot more complicated than some kind of simple battle between good and evil. For one thing, customers themselves play a part in these developments by shopping primarily for the lowest base fare. Expedia, Travelocity and the rest tend to arrange their results to spotlight the lowest fare – which, in turn, is the decision of a product manager trying to give customers what they want. Cheap but uncomfortable seating is what customer behavior might indicate that people want (bringing to mind the old adage, “voters get the politicians they deserve”). It’s complicated.

And yet. This is not the first time customers have played a part in what ends up being a customer-hostile system. Think back to how smartphones, before the iPhone, used to be designed and sold. Manufacturers sold shiny devices with complicated, hard-to-use interfaces because that’s what buying behavior seemed to indicate customers wanted. Until the iPhone was designed (which I write about in my book). If you enjoy using an iPhone, you’re holding proof that there is always, always, room for a company with a long-term approach: giving customers something better than what’s available today, something customers deserve more than the standard poor treatment coming from short-term competitors, something that customers will want, and buy, even if they don’t explicitly ask for it beforehand.

So I still believe in my founding vision of Creative Good. The better that companies treat customers – as fellow human beings who deserve a good customer experience, as we would want for ourselves – the better those companies will perform, over the long run. I have staked my career on this belief, which is why I wrote a book on the idea, why I run a conference spotlighting people who do it right (coming up again in April!), and why my team helps companies put this idea into practice.

And after 18 years, I thank you for being a part of it.


The story of the wrong roof

December 19, 2014 By Mark Hurst

Did you hear about the architects who designed a house with the wrong roof?

This actually happened. Not long ago in New Orleans, Brad Pitt’s foundation brought architects together to help design houses as part of the rebuilding process after Katrina. Architects brainstormed their best ideas and came back with plans for… a house with a flat roof.

Having lived in New Orleans, I can tell you that it rains in that city. A lot. Flat roofs aren’t such a great idea.

Here’s the twist: I really like what the architects came up with. I mean, at the end of the project. Because the flat roof never got built. The architects learned, before the project went into the build phase, that the roof needed, literally, a different direction. The architects redesigned the roof.

What changed the architects’ minds? This one all-important step that is so often overlooked or skipped in the design and innovation process: including the customer. The architects sat down with future residents of those houses to understand their perspective, before the houses got built. The residents took one look at the plans and said, hey, maybe a flat roof isn’t such a great idea for New Orleans rainstorms.

The architects, in other words, included the residents – the “customers” of their process – and were able to create a better outcome than they would have by excluding the customers.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this story, which I spotted in this New York Times op-ed. The authors are really speaking our language. Although they’re addressing architects, tell me if their words don’t ring true:

We must rethink how we respond to the needs of diverse constituencies by designing for them and their interests, not ours. We must hone our skills through authentic collaboration, not slick salesmanship . . . Reconnecting architecture with its users — rediscovering the radical middle, where we meet, listen and truly collaborate with the public, speak a common language and still advance the art of architecture — is long overdue. It’s also one of the great design challenges of our time.

Does this resonate with you? That we should design, create, and innovate for our users’ interests, and not our own – I find this an elegant description of what Creative Good stands for (and indeed is a rallying cry for our community gathering at our Gel conference in April in New York).

It’s not just architects, either. In Paris, the president of the Louvre uses a “customers included” strategy by standing in lines and being with museum visitors to understand the experience from their perspective.

This idea? Of including the people we serve in the decisions we make? It’s real, and it’s growing. I intend to keep spreading it in 2015 – with this newsletter, with our Gel conference, and with conversations and meetings – with you and the rest of the Creative Good community. Thanks for being a part of it.

Announcing our Gel 2015 conference

December 10, 2014 By Mark Hurst

I’m happy to announce that Gel is back.

Sign up here for Gel 2015: Thursday-Friday, April 23-24, 2015 in New York. (Early bird discount ends on December 18.)

You might have seen last week’s New York Times profile of Dutch inventor Theo Jansen, whose wind-powered walking beach creatures are now on tour in the US (see video from Miami Beach). Longtime Gel attendees remember that Theo Jansen spoke at Gel first, before any other event, nearly ten years ago. You can watch his Gel 2005 talk here.

If you come to Gel, you’ll get the ideas, inspiration, and connections – first. Maybe even a decade before the rest of the world.

Gel is the event for people who care about creating a good experience: whether it’s customer experience, user experience, patient experience, or the experience for students, citizens, or visitors. We learn from people in different lines of work: how do you create an experience that serves the common good?

Companies already signed up to attend Gel 2015: Google, Fidelity, Metafilter, Wells Fargo, Constant Contact, and others.

Hope you’ll join us.

Are customers included in design thinking?

November 13, 2014 By Mark Hurst 6 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.