Twenty years ago, I drove to a county clerk's office just outside New York City and registered a new company called Creative Good. I was less than two years out of school, I was full of ideas about the brand new World Wide Web, and I was broke. It was January 7, 1997, and I was 24 years old.
Now I type this as a 44-year-old, weathered and a bit wiser, and still running Creative Good. Twenty years seems like a good milestone to reflect on what I've done, what I've learned, and what comes next.
First, what I spent 20 years doing:
• Pioneered customer experience, wrote a book on it (Customers Included), and trained and led a consulting team that delivered projects to hundreds of companies worldwide.
• Founded the Gel conference and ran 14 events, including the first stage presentation of Wikipedia by Jimmy Wales (2005), Sal Khan's first presentation of Khan Academy (2010), the first talks of Stewart Butterfield, Marissa Mayer, and Ze Frank, and others.
• Pioneered the empty-inbox method of email management (today known better as Inbox Zero), spoke widely on productivity, and wrote an early book on it, Bit Literacy. Launched the world's first online todo list, which is still running and still amazing: Good Todo.
• Wrote a lot. Launched one of the world's first blogs, which you are now reading, and one of the longest-running email newsletters in the world (here). Followed up, more recently, with a podcast: Creative Good with Mark Hurst.
• Launched side projects: Wrote and published the Uncle Mark holiday gift guide for ten years. Built and launched an award-winning mobile game, Brooklyn 1776. Built and launched addyourown (early precursor to Yelp), sittingo (a conference-speaker database), and other sites. And I helped warn people away from Google Glass.
I'm grateful to all the consultants, analysts, designers, and developers I've worked with since 1997, making all of this possible. I've been lucky to have a front-row seat to the unbelievable changes in our world brought about by digital technology.
And yet, if you ask me to list what's changed in 20 years, I'd have to start by saying "not much."
In a way, very little has changed in 20 years.
Sure, we've advanced our tech since 1997. Our bandwidth is faster, our phones are smaller, and we can share vacation photos with old friends from high school like no other time in history.
But in the consulting work I do, helping teams create something good for their users, I can say confidently that exactly the same problems crop up in 2017 as they did in 1997. Teams still want to launch something based on their own opinions of "what's cool." Leaders still rely too much on their own opinions (or, today, their opinions of how to interpret vast oceans of data). Still, today in 2017, customers are not significantly included in product or strategy decisions. Same as 1997.
For their part, users haven't changed that much, either. Most people want something that achieves their goals with a minimum of pain - that is, something that is both quick and easy to use. They're willing to muddle through mediocre experiences, if that's all that's available, but they will stampede to any product that rises above the crowd - and they'll tell their friends about it, too.
After 20 years, it can still be difficult to convince leaders to invest in the customer experience, in spite of the many case studies of teams that benefited from this approach, and teams that paid dearly for ignoring it. (Read Customers Included.) And this means that, just like 1997, the year 2017 is an excellent opportunity for any team to do amazing things, just by listening to the customer.
But not everything has stayed the same.
In another way, a lot has changed in 20 years.
• UX is established. On the bright side, user experience in 2017 is a known and respected field to an extent that would have been unimaginable in 1997, when most people had never even heard the term. There are graduate degrees, certifications, conferences, and career paths for UX professionals. And companies are hiring internal UX teams, which means...
• There aren't many independent UX teams left. After the internal UX team is hired, there usually isn't much budget left over for outside experts with a more strategic perspective. Companies tend to look at the internal UX team as a validation service, confirming leadership's decisions and suggesting small-scale edits. This has forced UX into a rather tactical and narrowly focused role. Budgets for strategic input from third-party experts, who could complement the work of the UX team, have declined - and that's unfortunate for everyone.
• Data is now more popular than qualitative understanding. The last few years have seen the rise of Big Data, which promises to deliver strategic knowledge through the quantitative analysis of large data sets. To some extent, it's true: data is essential, and analysis (as long as it's good!) is vital to the success of any team today. But many teams have abandoned qualitative research in the process. The pendulum has swung too far. "You need two legs to run," as a colleague put it, "quantitative and qualitative." Too many companies are putting their faith in data alone, and that's dangerous. The best teams make use of both data analysis and qualitative research, two complementary tools in gaining understanding.
• The Big Four call the shots. The digital landscape today is mostly run by four companies: Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon. These companies strongly affect every industry that is embracing digital, which is - every industry. Ecommerce, media, finance, travel, healthcare, automotive, insurance, education, you name it - all of them are paying close attention to those four companies. This consolidation is totally different from the Wild West of 1997, when anyone with a hosting account and a clever idea could launch something with a chance to succeed. By comparison, the sense of possibility, of pure innovation, in 2017 seems muted. Companies have less incentive to listen to users when it's more important to be compatible with the Big Four.
• Surveillance capitalism has arrived. Capturing users' attention, and harvesting their resulting data, is now one of the chief business activities online - indeed, it is the primary revenue driver for two of the Big Four. This "surveillance capitalism" is more than creepy; it's a threat to the online economy itself, not to mention the threat to civic life as governments get involved. While the U.S. media has seemed reluctant to report negatively on the issue (why? see the previous bullet), there is a growing chorus of independent voices calling it out. (Examples: This Nicholas Carr post, or Bruce Schneier: "We must convince giants like Google & Facebook to change their business models away from surveillance capitalism.")
This sets the stage for some real changes.
Here's what I hope will happen in 2017.
• We'll focus on HX: the human experience. The best teams of 2017 will engage users not as bags of data to be harvested, but as human beings who deserve good, useful, meaningful products and services that are honest and fair in their operations. This will require looking at people not merely as "users" of a technology, but as humans. And it will require looking beyond users to the communities they live in. Technology is a given today, so a focus on the HX - the human experience - will reveal how to build tech that really works for people - and benefits the team in the process.
• Teams will reach out for strategic help from outside the company. I hope that more companies in 2017 will supplement their internal UX resources with the fresh perspective that comes from expertise outside. This what I do at Creative Good, of course, but it fits into a larger and more abstract trend, which is...
• We'll look for depth, for basics, and for meaning. For too long we've been growing too distracted. Our attention is for sale, and some companies (see above) are in the business of grabbing it and holding on. Don't things seem a little... superficial lately? 2017 is the start of the reaction. We'll look for ways to reconnect, to reset, to return to what we wanted to do all along. (And those companies who are misusing our data, and our attention, will begin to face stronger resistance.)
Here's what I plan to do in 2017, and how you can join me.
• Work with teams: I'll continue to advise companies, from startups to mid-size companies to enterprises - on how to create a better human experience in their products - creating better financial results and a better image of the company in the world. You can contact me to explore how I might help your team.
• Make people productive: I'll continue maintaining and improving Good Todo, my productivity platform. You should try it out, if you want to get back to basics, solve email overload, and get organized. (2017 is also the 10-year anniversary of my book Bit Literacy, which explains how to do it.) You can sign up here.
• Convene our community: I may run another Gel event - either a salon in the spring, or a full conference in the fall, or both - depending on my time and your interest. (Reply to email me if you'd bring the team back to Gel).
• Teach: I'll be helping teach a class at NYU Stern School of Business, for the second time, on startups and customers. I'll also run more "Customers Included" workshops for teams. (Again, drop a note if this could help your team.)
• Speak: I've spoken on three continents about Customers Included and will continue to do so. (Invite me to speak.)
• Publish: You'll see more email newsletters, blog posts, and podcast episodes. Stay tuned.
• Read: I'll continue to build my intellectual framework and worldview for how all of this work connects - and it does - across a wide range of topics and domains.
What you can do right now:
Here are three ways to help, right now.
• 1. Share this post. You can paste this text into Twitter or Facebook...
What has changed online in 20 years, and what comes next: http://creativegood.com/blog/creative-good-20-years-what-comes-next by Creative Good founder @markhurst
• 2. Read my book Customers Included and learn how to listen better to customers.
• 3. Sign up for Good Todo, my online todo list for Web, iOS, and Android. You can start solving email overload in a matter of minutes.
Here's to 20 years of Creative Good. Thanks for being with me on the journey.
Now, let's make 2017 our best year yet.
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(Tell a colleague to sign up for my email newsletter or subscribe to my podcast.)