The Internet of Things needs 1 thing most of all

March 24, 2015 By Mark Hurst 7 Comments

For anything to succeed on the Internet of Things, it has to be better than the alternative.

For 20 years, digital teams have tried to create great user experiences where there were few to no comparable experiences in the physical world. But now the Internet of Things promises to bring digital experiences to the physical world, where users often have access to longstanding products that work just fine.

This means that success or failure on the Internet of Things will come down to one question: Is it better than what users already have?

For example, let’s compare these two wristwatches:


On the left is my trusty Casio G-Shock – an offline, 1980s-era watch. On the right is, of course, the Apple Watch.

• The G-Shock has an easy user interface, battery life of 10 years, zero security vulnerabilities, and a price under fifty dollars.

• As for the Apple Watch, remember the key question: Is it better than what users already have? Apart from any other considerations, will people buy a watch for hundreds or thousands of dollars when it has a battery life of a few days? And which requires a (perfectly fully featured) smartphone to be kept nearby? Many will, of course, but it’s hard to make the case for the wider market that Apple has relied on.

Some argue that the Apple Watch is mainly a fashion statement (and, granted, my Casio isn’t – believe me, I’ve heard). There are, after all, luxury-brand watches that cost even more. But what happens in two years, when the technology in this smartwatch is out of date? Moore’s Law never applied to luxury goods until now.

The best argument in favor of the Apple Watch is that it isn’t yet better than the alternative, but it will be in the future. You have to start somewhere, and Apple is starting with customers who can afford to pay the price for “first on the block” bragging rights. It reminds me of early cell phones, those ridiculous bricks carried around for show in the 1980s. They quickly went out of date and were replaced with much more useful, and less expensive, devices in the 1990s.

Regardless of the timing, the user experience is the crucial ingredient to success for any Internet of Things product. And I don’t mean tactical UX stuff like where to put the Preferences link (though I suppose that is important in its own place). Rather, it’s the overall user experience that matters: what do people already use in the physical world? Do people, in fact, need a “smart” device, if something offline is less expensive, more durable, and equally functional? What do people actually want, and what will actually improve their lives?

The winners in the Internet of Things will be those teams that really think about the customer.

And that’s largely the point we’ll explore at my Gel 2015 conference next month (Thur-Fri, Apr 23-24 in New York). The teams that include customers in their thinking, the teams that invest in the overall user experience, are poised to succeed in the next digital era. Be there.

Beware the whiteboard that ignores customers

March 12, 2015 By Mark Hurst 2 Comments

If your inhouse “innovation team” isn’t spending time with customers, be careful with what they sketch on the whiteboard.

This little thought has struck a nerve on Twitter, I’d guess because many companies approach innovation as an exercise is brainstorming new and exciting ideas, in the safe confines of the “ideation room” inside the office, well away from any customers.

While there’s nothing wrong with being new and exciting, that’s not the nature of innovation. There’s been a good deal of scholarship on the term – notably by Benoit Godin (see his publications) – that includes this great quote from the 1960s: “Innovation has come to mean all things to all men, and the careful student should perhaps avoid it wherever possible, using instead some other term.”

What is innovation, then?

It’s making things better for customers. Whether it’s a radical “disruptive” innovation, or an improvement on something that’s already available, if you make things better for customers, you’re doing innovation right. And that requires spending some time with customers.

If you’re stuck inside the ideation room, talking only to other people on the team, you’re unlikely to come up with what customers want. And yes, I know, “customers don’t know what they want.” But here’s the thing: it’s not the customer’s job to tell you what they want; it’s your job to find out. And that – once again – requires spending some time with customers.

From now on, let’s replace the word “innovation” with “making things better for customers.” It would clarify so many discussions, such as this one:

A: So you’re leading the innovation team?

B: Sure am.

A: Did you spend any time with customers before drawing these cool ideas on the whiteboard?

B: Of course not, because customers don’t know what they want.

…now let’s try it with our (new and exciting!) phrase.

A: So you’re leading the Making Things Better For Customers team?

B: Sure am.

A: Have you actually spent any time with customers yet?

B: Of course not, because-

A: Please leave the building.

The customers are out there, outside the building – and so is the next innovative idea.

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NEXT STEP: Join me next month at the Gel conference. If you want to be around other folks who “get it” – innovation in the best sense of the word – sign up to join us at Gel (Thur-Fri, April 23-24 in New York). Hope to see you there.

Announcing Gel 2015 speakers

February 12, 2015 By Mark Hurst

I’m excited to announce the speakers of our upcoming Gel 2015 conference (April 23-24 in New York):

Lou Shapiro – CEO, Hospital for Special Surgery (creating top-rated patient experiences)

Nancy Lublin – CEO, DoSomething (innovating how to help teens in crisis – via text message)

Andy Baio – writer, entrepreneur, and cofounder of XOXO Festival (uniquely smart perspective on digital experiences)

Jonathan Wegener – CEO, Timehop (wildly successful mobile app & community)

Jordyn Lexton – founder, Drive Change (creating change with food trucks run by formerly incarcerated youth)

David Segal – “The Haggler” columnist, New York Times (tracking how companies address customer problems – or not)

Nikki Sylianteng – founder, To Park Or Not To Park (sharing a redesigned parking sign with the world)

Paul Murphy – CEO, Dots (insanely popular mobile game – how they did it)

Jason Saenz – writer and comedian (adding surprise to the cityscape)

Mark Hurst – yours truly, hosting the event

Details: Gel 2015 speaker list.

Our theme this year is “impact”: we’ll be exploring people, projects, and teams that go beyond the intent or idea of creating a good experience – they actually do it. What are the aspects of good experience that make for real-world success? We’ll learn from the brilliant speakers above (and more to be announced).

Companies attending Gel 2015 include Google, Dropbox, Cisco, Fidelity Investments, Kaiser Permanente, Citi, Wells Fargo, Nordstrom, MTV, GE Capital, Consumer Reports, and dozens more. These are VPs, SVPs, some CEOs, and some managers & directors – managing products and experiences around the world. Meet them at Gel.

Partners hosting breakout sessions include betaworks, Centre for Social Innovation, Hired Guns, and more on the way (see agenda). If you care about customer experience, don’t miss out on this community.

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NEXT STEPS: I’d love it if you would…

1. Sign up to attend. Earlier is better, so that I have a sense of who’s coming (and what other cool things I can afford to put into the Gel experience). Drop a line if the whole team wants to come; we can offer a discount.

2. Share this on Twitter, Facebook, etc. – you could say something like:
Excited to see the Gel speaker list – great conference on customer experience & experience design:

I’m excited, and I feel some urgency about Gel this year. This is the event, this is the community, these are the conversations that we need to create good experience – in companies, in social innovation, in startups and hospitals and schools and cities. Don’t miss Gel this year.

Hope to see you there.

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.