Author Archives: Gerry McGovern

Cult of volume destroys customer experience

“We don’t want to make it easy for people to find stuff, because we want people to stay on our site.” So said George Bell then CEO of search engine Excite, back around 1998.

This is how so many traditional managers think. It’s the cult of volume. The obsession with more. Success is about more visitors, more pages visited, more time spent. It’s always about more, more, more.

I recently talked a manager at a food safety website. A large part of their traffic was about recipes because everybody loves recipes and everybody loves volume. And even though your recipes are not a core part of food safety, you’ve got to have them because they bring volume and success is all about volume.

It goes deeper. Everyone wants to produce. Nobody wants to service and maintain. If you’re a new manager you must do something new. You must initiate new projects. You must produce. You must produce.

The genius of Google was Page Rank. What it did was tap into human collective intelligence. According to Page Rank, the more people linked to a page the more important it was and the higher it would rank in the search results.

The founders of Google spent a couple of years going around to all the search engines trying to license Page Rank. They would show them how Page Rank was delivering better search results. That’s when George Bell from Excite got really upset with them because they were foolish grad students who didn’t understand real business.

Real business is not about serving and helping people. It’s about manipulating them, corralling them so that as much of their time as possible can be sold to advertisers. This strategy has been called all sorts of things: stickiness, interactivity, engagement, conversion. At core, it’s always been about getting the customer to do what you want them to do, getting them to go on your journey, getting them to spend the maximum amount of time and money as possible. This strategy still works. But not as well as it used to.

As people become better educated and more connected to their peers, they become less dependent on organizations, less open to manipulation, less gullible to branding. Google didn’t just create a search engine. It tapped into a whole new cultural awakening where people felt empowered and where personal time was becoming the most precious resource.

In 99 out of 100 conversations I have about digital, management only cares about volume. More. More. More. New. New. New. Innovative. Innovative. Innovative. It is so incredibly rare to find a manager who will invest time and money in helping people find stuff more easily. And, once a customer has found something, helping them understand it more easily.

I shudder at most marketing-led websites. With their ridiculous carousels and phony stock images and effusive, hyperbolic, empty content drivel, they are a pantomime to the past. Out there hunting their new customers. Setting sights on their targets who they will convert with clichés and false promises. This strategy still works if you throw enough money at it. But not as well as it used to.

“Users come to your Web site? To search?” Google founder, Larry Page asked. And you don’t want to be the best damn search engine there is? That’s insane! That’s a dead company, right?”


Google Was Not a Normal Place, Vanity Fair


Support and service is the digital brand

When I think of SMTP.COM, I don’t think about their logo, their corporate colors, their tone, their mission statement or their advertising. Instead, I think of great service. It’s so amazing to find great service today. So amazing to find a company that actually cares about its customers.

I just got an email from Alex, who works for SMTP. “Hello Gerry, How are you today? I haven’t heard back from you on my email below for some time now, and would like to follow-up on it.” This is Alex chasing me up in order to help me solve a problem I’m having sending email. That’s amazing. I can’t remember that happening before.

Most interactions with support are stressful. The support person is often trying their best to sound like a bot as they effusively welcome you, while at the same time trying to get rid of you as quickly as possible.

In most organizations, support is the lowest paid, least respected part of the organization hierarchy. Everyone looks down on support because everyone looks down on current customers. Consequently, support people tend to be expected to follow rigid procedures. They can only ‘help’ the customer within very limited parameters.

There is hardly any room to be flexible and to innovate in order to solve the customer’s problem. As a result, dealing with support feels like dealing with a juggler in a straightjacket wishing you the happiest of happiest days as they tell you there’s nothing they can do to help you, or else repeatedly telling you to do something you’ve repeatedly told them you can’t do.

In a 1989 study, consultant Sidney Yoshida found what he called The Iceberg of Ignorance. While 100% of front-line problems were known to the front-line employees, only 74% were known to team leaders, 9% to middle management and just 4% to top management. This is still true today. The further away from the current customer you are, the higher the pay and respect you get.

The customer with a problem is like a leper. Stay away from them. They’ll cost us money. It’s a cultural thing that’s deeply embedded in the DNA of traditional organizations. Support is a cost to be managed, to be outsourced. Get those lepers into a ‘Knowledge Base’ where we’ve dumped a load of badly written, out-of-date, horribly organized information churned out by serfs who get paid by the word.

The customer with a problem is an opportunity. Customers with problems are a marketing and sales goldmine. Because customers with problems now have the tools to communicate to other potential customers about their problems. And who are potential customers looking to hear from most? Current customers. Real customers. Not fake, smiley face marketing personas. Real ones.

Nobody thinks you’re perfect. Nobody expects you to be perfect. What customers expect is that when they have a problem, there will be a genuine attempt to solve that problem. Is that too much to ask?

Today, for most organizations, it is. Because most organizations have contempt for their current customers. They overcharge them and under-support them. The Web gave the current customer the greatest, loudest, baddest megaphone. And all around the Web you can hear current customers roar: “We’re mad as hell! And we’re not going to take it anymore!”

Qualitative research: the third essential customer research input

Qualitative research, involving talking to customers in groups or individually can add depth to an understanding of customer behavior and psychology. However, it needs to be framed by quantitative and observational research because, for a variety of reasons, customers can mislead.

Some years ago, Norwegians hospitals did a Top Tasks analysis to understand what were the most important hospital-related tasks. Three top tasks dominated the results: Before, during and after treatment. This may seem obvious but before the top tasks data rolled in there was not universal consensus that these indeed were the top tasks.

Knowing the top tasks allowed conversations with patients that could be more directed and probing. The interviews and focus groups showed the vulnerability and desire of people to get as much information as possible. The data came alive with human stories.

“We summed the findings in a simple story (the patient´s story),” Eirik Hafver Rønjum stated, which tells us what is hiding behind the slightly cold phrase “What happens
before, during and after treatment”:

“When I became ill, I had to orient myself in a new and frightening reality,” one patient recounted. “I wondered what was wrong with me, what kind of treatment I would get and what would happen to me during the recovery. I also wanted to find the hospital that could give me the best treatment I was going through.

“Prior to hospitalization, I also had many practical questions: Where can I park my car? Which building should I show up at, and where is the front door? Can my spouse be with me in the hospital? Those were all questions running through my mind. I found it difficult to find the answers.”

One thing that never fails to amaze me is how disconnected most digital teams are from real, flesh-and-blood customers. I even find that even with UX professionals, who you would think surround themselves with customers every day, are far from doing that. They often get so caught up in their tools and techniques and internal interactions, that they end up having precious little time for real customers.

You will never find empathy in data. Real human-to-human interactions are the soil in which empathy grows. These interactions make the data far richer and more powerful, because they give you much more powerful lenses with which to view and interpret the data.

The weakness of interviews and focus groups tends to occur when you don’t have any data to guide you through them. Customers are often notoriously bad at describing what they do, and what they really need, unless they are specifically directed. Whether deliberately or not, they often say the exact opposite of what they do. Customer lie, boast, overstate or simply forget, so it’s important your conversations with them are grounded in data and observations.

Quantitative data gives you what is happening. Observational data tells you why it is happening. Qualitative data gives you insight into the emotional state and underlying attitudes that drive the behavior. All have their own weaknesses and strengths. On their own, they are as likely to mislead as to give insight. It is their proper combination that draws a fully rounded and in-depth picture of the customer, a picture that is absolutely essential if you are to deliver a great customer experience.

Observational customer research

The purpose of observational research is to understand what people are doing. The purpose of qualitative research is to understand what people are thinking or feeling. Only when you combine observational and qualitative research with quantitative data do you get a truly comprehensive understanding of your customers.

Service industries have long made customer observation a cornerstone of their management philosophy. Sam Walton, who founded Walmart, mandated that his managers spent four days every week on the floor of their supermarkets. He gave an example of how he was able to spot emerging trends. He observed that many women shopping at his store had ladders in their tights. It was the end of a recessionary period and people had more money in their pockets. He made a big order for women’s tights, set up some front-of-aisle displays with good prices. The tights flew out the door.

I once talked to a McDonald’s manager who told me a story about one day that she was spending more time than usual in her office because her secretary was out sick. The phone rang. She picked it up. It was her boss. The first question she was asked was: “What are you doing in the office?”

You cannot deliver excellent service if you are not constantly observing the use of your service. If you’ve got a website or app, you’re in the business of delivering services. It is scary how little most digital professionals observe the use of what they create. Customer observation is the foundational skill in service design and management. It is simply impossible to deliver quality services without constant observation of customers.

The most basic form of observation is a usability test. You give a customer a task and you observe them as they try and complete that task. There are always patterns. If you observe eight people and three of them are stumbling at Page X, you can be sure that there’s a real and recurrent issue there.

What you can then do is to go back to your quantitative data and see what it is telling you about Page X. For example, if you see there’s a high bounce rate on that page, then that might indicate that many customers are giving up at that point. If you examine the top searches that occur on Page X, that can indicate what people were expecting to find when they arrived on Page X.

The potential weakness of observation is with the observer and in the test design. Even with highly experienced professionals it is often hard to agree what the most important patterns are. Observation can also suffer from confirmation bias. It is not uncommon for organizations to run usability tests just before launch of a product or service to confirm that they have done the right thing and tick the box that they have tested with customer. The purpose of observing customers is not to confirm a design, but rather to help develop a design.

The patterns identified during observation should be treated as hypotheses that can be confirmed or otherwise by quantitative data. More importantly, observation should be a constant, ongoing process. The foundation of all great service delivery is the continuous observation of customers. Changes to the service get made based on these observations and then further observation confirms whether or not the changes have been useful.

The three essential sources of customer insight

To truly understand customers it is essential to combine insights from the following research methods:

  • Quantitative
  • Observational
  • Qualitative

Quantitative data will tell you what is happening but only if it is configured properly, which often it is not. Bots and other sorts of unpredictable activity can seriously undermine the credibility of the statistics. For example, I once saw site whose most popular page had a throw-away reference to a Beatles song.

Quantitative data will tell you the current state, but it will rarely indicate what is missing, or unearth new opportunities and tasks that customers wish to complete.

How many visitors? How long did they stay? How many pages did they look at? What do these stats actually tell you? The worse your service is, the more visitors you may have to your website looking for support. The more confusing your menus and links are, the more pages they may be looking at. The more difficult your content is to understand, the longer they may be spending reading it.

Another problem with quantitative data is that humans are programmed to be impressed by size. Whenever you find a website in crisis you can be almost certain that the Cult of Volume was a major underlying cause.

The Cult of Volume ensures that so many digital teams are forced to chase hits, to create more apps, more sites, more features, more content. To get more visitors, staying longer, looking at more.

Search data is an important form of quantitative data but it has many weaknesses. The worse organized a website is, the more likely people are to search for top tasks. The easier to use a website is, the more likely customers are to use the navigation (because the top tasks will be prominently displayed), and only search for tiny tasks.

An extreme example of this behavior happened on the BBC intranet years ago. On the intranet homepage was introduced a section called Top 10 Searches. Employees began to click on these links and thus stopped searching for them. Six months later, the team noticed that there was a new top 10 searches, and so they replaced the old top 10 with the new top 10. What happened? The old top 10 became the new top 10 searches again.

Another factor is search maturity. When someone starts out in an environment, they will tend to do lots of searching. As they get to know their environment better, they will develop a list of favorite places which they will start going back to. Over a period of time, their search behavior is thus likely to change substantially, with less and less search for their top tasks. For example, a 2018 NPR/Marist survey found that 44% of US adults go straight to Amazon when they want to buy a retail product.

The words people search with does not always describe the task they are trying to complete. On the Microsoft Excel website, lots of people were searching for “remove conditional formatting.” Microsoft created a page to explain how to do this but this page never worked. Because what people really wanted to do was figure out how to use conditional formatting properly.

How did Excel know that what people really wanted to do? Just like all the best digital teams, they began combining qualitative and observational data with quantitative data.

Quick Links, Slow Links and bad navigation design

Just because something is used doesn’t mean that it is useful. Design decisions can create the wrong expectations and can send people on journeys that will end up in failure.

“To simplify the process for advisers, we introduced a ‘quick links’ box on the landing page of our benefits content,” Katherine Vaughan writes in an article for Citizens Advice UK in May 2018. “The aim was to link to the most important content so advisers could find it quickly.”

There are very few navigational shortcuts through complexity. There is an old Japanese saying: “No shortcuts today. I’m in a hurry.” There is a long history of attempting to separate the useful content from the less useful content on the Web. Remember “Useful Links”? Well then what are the other links? Useless Links? What is the designer trying to say? Ignore the other stuff. Here’s the good stuff.

Then we had Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). So, what does the other content do. Answer the infrequently asked questions? And, of course, if you call something Quick Links then that surely implies that the other links are Slow Links, doesn’t it? I mean, why would anyone choose a slow link when they have the option of choosing a quick link?

Which is exactly what happened at Citizens Advice. Quick Links quickly became a dirty magnet that attracted all sorts of clicks from all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons. It became very popular in the same way that if you place a sign outside a pub that says “Free Beer”, that pub is going to become very popular.

Citizens Advice visitors absolutely loved Quick Links. “Everybody expected what they needed to be in there, whatever the scenario,” Katherine explains. “When probed on the biggest priorities, our testers expected and wanted very different things from a ‘quick links’ feature. To meet the needs of such a diverse range of users, the ‘quick links’ would have grown to become a second A-Z function.”

These sort of links become websites within websites, promising everything and delivering much less. Based on evidence, Citizens Advice got rid of Quick Links. “Rather than trying to skip steps of navigation, we’re now focusing on making the navigation more intuitive,” Katherine states. “Although people liked ‘quick links’, we were able to find better ways to meet the need for quicker navigation. Our next round of testing has already shown that users are navigating the new structure more quickly and confidently.”

We must understand why something is happening not just what is happening. Volume-based metrics are one of the worst possible ways to measure quality customer experience. In so many organizations I deal with, volume-based metrics are resulting in designs that frustrate and annoy customers. In an organization that only measure volume, “Quick Links” and other horrible design features would actually be seen as a success, and the organization would be seeking to compound the errors it was already making by introducing more “Quick Links”. If you are measuring only volume of activity on your website you are as likely measuring the failure of your website, not its success.

Why we removed the only feature everyone liked in our new advice tool, Katherine Vaughan, Citizens Advice UK

Agility cupcakes and the rise of the customer as designer

Embracing the new opportunities of print, including the fact that it allowed other cartographers to give feedback, Abraham Ortelius brought out more than 28 editions of his Theatrum atlas between 1570 and 1598. On a daily basis, Google staff will make hundreds of changes to their maps based on thousands of pieces of feedback.

Just like Ortelius did in 1570, Google uses technology to harness the collective intelligence. Google knows something that most organizations do not: That technology is not enough. That it is the combination of human intelligence and artificial intelligence that delivers the best intelligence.

The secret Google’s success, according to Alexis Madrigalto writing for The Atlantic in 2012, “isn’t, as you might expect, Google’s facility with data, but rather its willingness to commit humans to combining and cleaning data about the physical world. Google’s map offerings build in the human intelligence on the front end, and that’s what allows its computers to tell you the best route from San Francisco to Boston.”

“Satellites and algorithms only get you so far,” Greg Miller wrote for Wired in 2014. “Google employs a small army of human operators (they won’t say exactly how many) to manually check and correct the maps.”

“People from all over the world can now edit information on the Google Maps application to ensure a higher accuracy,” The Conversation stated in 2015. “People can become data collectors. They can carry the Street View Trekker (a backpack outfitted with Google’s cameras) to snap images – later to be uploaded on Street.”

Sara Wachter-Boettcher started off a wonderful presentation at Confab 2018 by telling the story of a cupcake calorie burning feature that Google had launched. If you used Google maps to find walking directions, as part of the directions, it would state something like: “This walk burns around 82 calories—that’s almost one mini-cupcake.” To illustrate things was a picture of lots of pink cupcakes.

The intent might have been good but within an hour of the launch of the feature, there was a flood of negative feedback. People complained that there was no way to turn it off, that it shamed, that average calorie count is wildly inaccurate, and that pink cupcakes imply a feminine, white, middle class cultural perspective. Within three hours, Google had removed the feature.

In a typical organization, the cupcake feature would be left up a lot longer than three hours. But then that’s why organizations like Google and Amazon are dominating the world economy. They are able and willing to rapidly respond to customer feedback. More importantly, once something is not working, they will change or remove it.

It’s easy to add. Anyone can add. But to improve what is already out there and remove what is not working are such rare organizational skills today. To truly listen and respond to customer feedback are such rare skills today. The ability to respond to customer feedback at speed is what differentiates the winners and losers in the digital universe.

How – and why – Google is transforming the map, The Conversat

How Google Builds Its Maps—and What It Means for the Future of Everything


Customer feedback drives the agile organization

Customers are changing far faster today than organizations are. Customers are setting the agenda. Their expectations are rising in direct proportion to their declining trust in and loyalty to organizations and brands.

You cannot deliver quality customer experience if you don’t understand the needs of your customers and create products and services to meet those needs. The agile organization is constantly soliciting customer feedback and constantly adapting and refining based on that feedback.

An underlying reason why customers are changing at such speed is because, with the Web, smartphones and computers, they have acquired much faster, flexible and vastly more connected communication tools.

For centuries, organizations have had vastly better communication tools than customers. This has allowed organizations a great degree of control over customers. Today, an average customer often has better—yes, better—communication tools than an average employee. Typical enterprise systems are chaotic and appalling, more akin to a medieval torture chamber than a modern environment for knowledge workers.

Whenever there are significant changes in the speed of communications, there are significant changes in societies. In ancient times, non-verbal communication was on stone tablets. That was slow and not open to much feedback. (I see you spelt that word wrong.) Then we had scrolls. The flat page was a major innovation but it took it centuries to replace the scroll.

Before print arrived, a 250-page handwritten book could take a writer almost 40 days to produce. These books were nearly always once-offs, so feedback was of little use. It is estimated that books became almost 350 times cheaper to produce as a result of the printing press.

Printing created exact copies and that was another huge innovation because it allowed many people to give feedback on the exact same thing. The cleverest entrepreneurs understood this new potential.

Abraham Ortelius (1527 – 1598) launched a print edition of his Theatrum atlas in 1570. Over the next 28 years he published at least one new edition every year. Why? Because he was getting tremendous feedback from cartographers from all over the world.

“By the simple expedient of being honest with his readers and inviting criticism and suggestions, “Elizabeth L. Eisenstein writes in The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, he “made his Theatrum atlas a sort of cooperative enterprise on an international basis. He received helpful suggestions from far and wide and cartographers stumbled over themselves to send him their latest maps of regions not covered in the Theatrum.”

Ortelius created an agile organization: open to the constant flow of feedback unleashed by print, and willing to adapt and improve based on that feedback. A word of warning about agility. An agile organization learns to jump out of the way of the oncoming train, not into its way. If you’re moving in the wrong direction then learning to sprint will just get you there faster.

Iterating and adapting is pointless unless your customers are at the very center of your design process, because it is your customers who you are adapting to. Constant customer feedback keeps you heading in the right direction. The faster you can solicit and act on that feedback, the more agile you become.



Principles of humility

Humility begins with an outward focus. You are not the center of the universe. The customer is. Humility is about gathering evidence, about listening intently without prejudice. It is not about what you think. It is not about what you feel. It is not about what your gut tells you. Whether you like the design or content or not is largely irrelevant.

It’s what works that matters. It’s how the people who you made the thing for react that matters. And if they don’t like it, don’t understand it, don’t get it, that’s your problem, not theirs. The road to delivering exceptional customer experience can be a very humbling experience.

Buurtzorg is a fascinating Dutch healthcare organization that has grown from a couple of nurses in 2007 to 14,000 today. The golden rule at Buurtzorg is that nurses must spend at least 60% of their time with their patients.

In other service organizations such as Walmart, Starbucks or Tesco, the golden rule is: be with your customers. It’s hard to do service design well if you don’t spend lots and lots of time with those you’re designing the services for. That requires humility because many designers, content and coding professionals are consumed by their own discipline, their own expertise, their own peer group. Constant testing, constant observation, constant analysis of usage data, continuous building of empathy for the customer—that’s how you’ll deliver exceptional services and customer experience.

Spotify talks about servant leaders. It expects its managers to also design and code, not simply to manage. Its culture is more sharing than owning. It is obsessed with its customers, seeking to listen and respond as quickly as possible.

“If you don’t know, it’s not shameful,” Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba has stated. “But if you don’t know and you pretend you know, it’s shameful.” Today, it’s not about knowing everything but rather about knowing how to know or knowing the people who know or know how to know. The amount of information you need to know is growing exponentially every day. You simply can’t keep up by using old models of learning and memorizing. You need to become part of the network. You need to become endlessly flexible.

Tote was an early app for the iPhone. It didn’t work well and only  had a couple of thousand customers. Its founders obsessed over those customers, meeting up with them, watching them use the app. They noticed that there was one feature that people liked a lot, which allowed customers to grab items and share them with friends. RIP Tote. Pinterest was born.

A team was developing a game called Glitch. The world just didn’t love Glitch enough. The team noticed that the tool they created to help them develop the game was pretty useful. RIP Glitch. Slack was born. Snow Devil was a website for selling snowboards. It was doing ok, but the ecommerce software they designed seemed even more useful. Shopify was born.

Changing your mind based on new evidence is not a sign of weakness. Adapting your great idea based on how it is being used is the way to create a great service. Remain open. Network beyond your peer group. Be humble. Listen. Observe. Embrace teams.


Humility: developing an old skill for a new age

Humility is not weakness. The opposite of humility is arrogance. And arrogance is a trait nurtured in traditional leadership. However, in the more networked and artificial intelligence societies that we are on the verge of, arrogance will be much less useful.

In 1999, I published my first book called The Caring Economy. Its hypothesis was that in an age of smart machines the best skills we could develop were emotional rather than logical because we can never compete with machine logic.

It was thus interesting to read the 2017 book by Ed Hess and Katherine Ludwig called Humility Is the New Smart. According to Hess, it’s hypothesis is that we must excel at doing well what “technology won’t be able to do well at least for the near future … Our answer lies within what makes us unique as humans – our ability to think differently than machines and our ability to engage emotionally with other humans.”

The greatest emotional skills today are the ability to empathize and collaborate beyond our own comfort zones and core networks. Humility is a key strength here because it doesn’t presume that you know everything. Humility is the opposite of pretending you are confident and have answers to everything. Humility is about listening, observing, being open to new ideas, taming the gut instinct, learning how to know.

Within every revolution there is a counter-revolution. The Renaissance period in Europe is regarded as one of great creativity. However, the Renaissance flowered within a cesspool of intense corruption. Humility will be fiercely resisted by those who have thrived on arrogance.

It is simply impossible to have all the answers today. And those who pretend they do are much more likely to be exposed by the unrelenting march of data. Daily, evidence is replacing opinion. Humility requires and ability to listen and learn from all the sources that can contribute to making a better experience. When it comes to customer / user experience, the very best source is the actual customer / user.

Digital teams often struggle to have continuous and deep interactions with their customers. We need to involve customers far more in our daily work. We need to get into their daily lives far more.

We are rigidly trained to be experts in our professions. That means that a writer must know what the best content is, a designer must know what the best design is, a developer must know what the best code is. It is, however, in the mixing of disciplines that the very best solutions occur.

If, for example, you want to make a digital experience fast, it is much better that the developer and the designer work together from the very beginning of the process. It is also better that the writer is involved because often what slows customers down most is confusing menus, links and content. Thus, delivering a really fast experience for customers requires a cohesive, multidisciplinary team, with each member adapting to the expertise of the others.

Humility is about embracing evidence of use, evidence of what customers are actually doing. It is not about what you think or feel or want. Humility is an hypothesis. Something that needs to be tested, verified, refined based on usage.

Humility requires a mind that is open. Open to criticism, open to insights from outside your discipline, open to learn, open to change.

The Caring Economy by Gerry McGovern

Humility Is the New Smart by Edward D. Hess, Katherine Ludwig