Author Archives: Gerry McGovern

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


The organization-centric universe

An organizational-centric universe depends on an atmosphere of trust, both from employees and customers. The perfect environment—at least in the short-term—is one of blind trust. Customers are fanatically brand loyal. Employees will follow orders without question. As trust declines, the organization will have to increase its command and control functions or else it will face decline too.

In the organizational universe there are three moons:
1. Ego
2. Rigidity
3. Complexity

The manager knows, and the higher up the manager is the more they know. Or are supposed to know. Strategy flows downwards and outwards. Ego-driven organizations work well in relatively slow-moving environments where there is high trust. The genius of the leadership is actively promoted. Employees are waiting for the next command. Customers are waiting for the next product.

Hierarchies are hierarchies. There is a ladder that must be climbed. There is a line of command, with specific handover points along the line. The higher up you go the more you’re paid to think. The lower down you are the more your paid to do and not to think too much, particularly when your boss tells you to do something.

Another word for rigidity might be stability. There is a process and a rule for everything. There is a certain way of doing things. There is a clear order and hierarchy and everyone knows their place. Rigidity and stability are excellent ways to maximum production. You’ve precisely defined the processes and work practices. The machine is well-oiled. Everyone knows exactly where they’re heading and they’re going to get there as quickly as possible. The only problem occurs if they’re heading in the wrong direction and/or if the environment begins to rapidly change.

Lots of processes, rules, work practices and customs built up over time create lots of complexity. Complexity is often job security. The more complex your job is—even better if it’s ‘creative’ and requires ‘magic’—the more secure your career is because others depend on you.

There’s nothing better for an organization than customers who depend on them. It’s very hard to resist such complexity. If an organization can integrate its products and services deep into the systems of its customers in complex and difficult to understand and change ways—then dependency occurs. Dependency and addiction are awful things but they can do wonders for the bottom line. Complexity is one of the best ways to hide overcharging. “In the mystery lies the margin” is an old marketing saying. Or as I heard someone else say, “In the margin lies the mystery.” There’s another old saying: “If you can’t dazzle them with diamonds, baffle them with bullshit.”

Organization complexity has been met by a tsunami of customer complexity. Today, customers and employees have never been more thoughtful, independent, skeptical and learning-driven. Their complexity and their unrelenting capacity to change their minds and habits is putting a tremendous stress on traditional organizational structures. Their expectations and demands are rising exponentially.

Modern technology has liberated the customer. It has not done the same for most organizations because they are deeply embedded in a culture of ego, rigidity and complexity. To survive and thrive in a customer-centric universe, organizations must replace ego with humility, rigidity with agility, and complexity with simplicity.

Developing a customer obsession culture

The Web gives power to people that was historically almost exclusively the domain of organizations. Yes, down through history we’ve had people-driven revolutions at points where the masses had reached their breaking-point with a system or regime and spontaneously rose up.

However, before the Web, people never had the tools of organization on such a vast and accessible scale. People have access to information that they never in history had before. Ancient regimes went to huge efforts to control access to information. Authoritarian regimes today seek to closely control the Web, fearing what can happen when people access enough information.

Smartphones are an organization-building tool in your hand. A world of communication and storage and data processing tools are available at modest cost. And we can connect with people like us on scale never before possible.

In the world of economy and government, this has resulted in a shift in power. While economically the elites have never been richer, they have also never been less powerful. They don’t control the agenda or the message nearly as much as they used to or would like to. Their brands are tarnished, and trust is evaporating like mist on a hot summer’s morning.

Authority figures have much less moral and actual authority than they ever had. Sure, tribalism still flourishes (it’s hard to overcome millions of years of programming). But there is a tsunami of skepticism and independent thinking out there. In general, people are depending less on figureheads and more on themselves, their peers and their communities.

Customers are changing at a ferocious pace. Organizations are changing at a snail’s pace. The gap between customer expectations and organizational capacity to deliver is widening every day. Technology has caused this change but technology alone will not save traditional organizations. The challenges go much deeper. They are to do with culture.

A macho, hierarchical culture is endemic throughout the vast majority of organizations. While these organizations may spout slick PR about employee or customer experience, they bristle at the very idea of giving customers (or employees) more power, information and control. This toxic culture sees technology as a means to reassert control both over customers and employees.

There is a reason, for example, that most intranets and enterprise systems are usability monstrosities. Typical enterprise systems are designed to make the life of senior management easier by forcing employees to provide more information in order to control them better. These hierarchical command-and-control systems are doomed to fail because they are simply too slow and cumbersome, and they are meeting increasingly fierce resistance from employees.

The customer is now the center of the Web quite simply because there are vastly more customers than there are large organizations. This is the age of disloyalty. This is the age of rampant switching. This is the age when the most valued voice is not some CEO or some slick marketing message. No, the most valued voice is someone you know. The most valued voice is someone who has actually used the product or service.

The new organizations that are thriving today know that their most valuable assets are not their intellectual property but rather their current customers. The best organizational thinkers are current customers. The best product designers are current customers. The best collaborators are current customers. Success today is based on developing a current customer obsession.


Design navigation for clarity and fidelity

Navigation is not a murder mystery. A great link tells you what it is, and just as importantly, tells you what it is not. There is nothing worse than a vague, meaningless link. Well, there is. It’s a link that promises much more than it can deliver. I call that sort of link a dirty magnet. The following are a list of terrible link names:
• Resources
• Tools
• Knowledge Base
• Tutorials
• Documents
• Data sheets
• Manuals
• Videos
• Frequently Asked Questions
• Quick Links
• Useful Links
• Do It Online
• Solutions

It would be generous to say that they are unclear. Formats are terrible forms of navigation. What is a document? What is not a document? How is a document different from a manual? What is a tutorial? Is a tutorial a document? Is a data sheet a document? And are all these things resources? Most of the aforementioned are print concepts, totally unsuited to a quality digital environment. Instead of data sheets, why can’t we say technical specifications? Instead of having documents, have installation, configuration, pricing, etc.

One of the laziest and least useful forms of navigation that grows like a weed on the Web is “Frequently Asked Questions.” If someone comes to your website with a question, how do they know it’s frequently asked or not? FAQs are one of the worst examples of organization-centric thinking. The organization knows it’s a frequently asked question. The customer does not.

Let’s say customers are constantly asking about prices. What should you do? Create a link in your navigation called “Pricing”, of course. FAQs are the ultimate in design laziness. Instead of actually organizing for the customer, let’s just dump a bunch of stuff into an FAQ. (Most of the stuff you find in FAQs are not even frequently asked.)

Tools is a terrible form of navigation. It is an awful approach to separate tools and content. People want to book a flight, not find a tool. And videos? Oh, I haven’t seen a video in days. Any video will do. And Solutions? What does that mean? Sure, it’s marketing nirvana, but we have seen countless customers get confused and annoyed when they clicked on it. Delivering solutions may be good strategy but as a form of navigation it is worse than useless. In fact, it is dangerous because it is a classic example of a dirty magnet—it promises so much more than it delivers.

The best and clearest navigation link is a task. “Costs” is what it is. “Costs” is not “Schedule”. The clearest links often avoid verbs such as “find” or “get”. Stripping away the verbs allows you to start with a more unique word. Don’t use “Get Pricing”. Use “Pricing”. Unless the verb is absolutely essential, strip it away. Focus on the essence of the task.

If most links were married they’d be getting divorced, because they never keep their promises. A link is a promise. Navigation is a promise. Don’t say “Book Now!” when it’s actually five steps to book. That’s like saying on a road sign “New York Now!” only to then explain that New York is 80 miles away. It really annoys people. Good navigation gives people a sense of what’s involved in the journey: how many steps, how long it will take, what exactly they will get. A link is a promise. Keep your promises.

Navigation design: twins and minimalism

For a great many tasks, there are two dominant journeys or paths that customers would like to take. Consider the following tasks:
• Download the latest firmware for the RV042 router.
• Find the waiting times for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services.
• What is the lowest price service for a 2015 Prius Active?
• Did more people die of heart attacks in Canada than in France in 2010?

People tend to think about the above type of tasks in two ways:
1. From an Object point of view
2. From a Subject point of view

Download the latest firmware for the RV042 router.
• Object: I want to get to the RV042 homepage then look for the firmware to download
• Subject: I want to get to the download software section and then look for the RV042

Find the costs for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services.
• Object: I want to find the Child and Adolescent Mental Health homepage and then look for costs information.
• Subject: I want to go to the costs section and then look for Child and Adolescent Mental Health services.

What is the lowest price service for a 2015 Prius Active?
• Object: I want to get to the Prius Active homepage and then look for service costs.
• Subject: I want to go to the Service section and then find costs for a Prius Active service.

Did more people die of heart attacks in Canada than in France in 2010?
• Object: I want to get to the Canada or France homepage and then find a link for health.
• Subject: I want to get to the Health homepage and then find a link to heart disease and then find information on Canada and France.

The closer you get to your destination, the more the navigation should be minimized. Once someone, for example, has arrived at the Martin Smith W-100 Acoustic Guitar homepage, let them focus on that guitar. Make the page all about that guitar. Strip away navigation that is not about that guitar.

Nobody is at your website or app to gaze lovingly at your navigation. “I didn’t like the Grand Canyon itself, but I did enjoy the fonts they used on their signposts,” said nobody, ever (except maybe a graphic designer).

Navigation should not draw attention to itself. It should take up as little space as possible while still being functional and helping people get to where they want to. If your customers are spending a lot of time staring at your navigation, that is most definitely a problem. If the navigation was clear, they could quickly scan it and then choose what they needed to do.

The use of minimalism does depend on where exactly on the site you are. If you are on the homepage of a site like, which seeks to deliver a massive range of services to an entire population, then it can make sense to dominate the page with navigation. However, once you get to a specific benefit page, for example, the navigation is minimized so as to focus on the content for that particular benefit.

Design for navigational momentum and unity

Design navigation for forward momentum. The core purpose of navigation is to help you move forward. Designing digital navigation is not that different from designing navigation for a road. You always want to be able to help people maintain their momentum and get to their destination as quickly as possible. The essence of momentum is to help people move forward, and this is the essential purpose of navigation—to help people move forward.

Yes, there may be some navigation to help people move backwards (do a U-turn) but that should be minimized. Always assume that the page that person is on is the page they want to be on. How do they move forward from this page so as to get to their final destination (assuming that the page they are on is not, in fact, their final destination).

So, for example, when you choose “musical instruments” on the Amazon website, the vast majority of the navigation becomes focused on helping you choose a musical instrument.
• The search is filtered to musical instruments
• Most of the horizontal navigation is about musical instruments
• All the left side navigation is about musical instruments
• All other products and services have been squeezed into a single link: Shop by Department

Navigation should help people maintain forward momentum. Focus on the task. Trust people that they are where they want to be. If they’ve made a mistake they can use search or hit the Back button. The job of navigation is to get them to the end of their journey as quickly as possible.

Navigation should be as unified as possible—kept together in the same physical space. There’s nothing worse than having pieces of navigation put all over the place without any real logic as to why. Of course, it may make sense to separate certain types of navigation (login, my account, etc.), but the core navigation—particularly about the products and services—should be as unified as possible.

Disparate, disunified navigation is a common mistake, particularly on older websites. Why? The website launches with a poorly designed navigation. Someone tries to fix the problem by adding some more navigation (but doesn’t remove the old malfunctioning navigation.) Little by little, new pieces of navigation are added, all trying to address specific issues.

Before you know it, there’s a spaghetti junction of disparate, overlapping and competing navigational models all over the page and the whole thing is a mess. This is also a very common mistake made by those who don’t understand the Top Tasks approach. They add a little section to their website navigation called “Top Tasks”. This just adds to confusion and clutter and makes the customer experience even worse, as people try and navigate through a hodgepodge of navigation approaches. To reemphasize: Top Tasks is an approach for the entire customer experience (including the tiny tasks). If you’re not going to use it for your entire environment, you’re much better off not using it at all.

Trust versus use

The recent Facebook personal data controversary raises two questions: How much is our privacy worth to us? How much is our convenience worth to us? It seems that we value convenience much more than we value privacy.

Facebook is a business that makes money off our personal data. The more data on us it has the more money it makes. What Facebook is not is a community. Facebook may provide community-building tools but its essence is a business that makes money out of community, connectedness and personal data. Facebook sells you community-building tools for free, which you pay for by giving away your privacy. It gives you the printer for free but you pay for the ink.

15% of Australians trust Facebook, according to a survey that was carried out before the Cambridge Analyticia controversary erupted. It would be difficult to find a country where the majority of people trust Facebook. It would be difficult to find a country where the majority of people don’t use Facebook.

Why do we use what we don’t trust? If you were sawing wood would you use a saw that you didn’t trust? A saw whose blade had a reputation for splintering. Would you drive a car that you didn’t trust? Would you get on a plane you don’t trust?

Do you trust Ryanair? Do you fly with Ryanair? Do you trust Google? Do you use Google? Do you trust Facebook? Do you use Facebook?

Lots of people say they don’t trust Ryanair but they fly with them and thus do trust Ryanair with their safety and their lives. I may not trust Google the organization but I do trust Google Maps to get me where I’m going. We got a new car in January. It has a navigation system with a big screen. But I don’t use it. Instead, I use Google Maps on my smartphone with a much smaller screen. You see, I don’t trust that the car navigation system will get me to where I want to go by the fastest route. (I tried it a couple of times and it didn’t do the job well and I’m not going to try it again.)

Clearly, we trust Facebook for something. We trust it to help us find our friends. We trust it to help us efficiently manage our social lives. Facebook advertising is like Google advertising. It’s not like the traditional advertising that constantly disrupted and annoyed us. It is targeted and precise. It knows us, figures out what we’re interested in, knows what we want, or knows what we can be subtly made to want.

For some people, Facebook is a lifetime sentence of debt. It will convince us to consistently spend more than we can afford because the more we spend with its advertisers, the more money it makes. And we will do all this because it’s convenient, easy, familiar, free. It knows us like a friend.

The top digital brands know how critical convenience, findability and ease-of-use are. They know how critical it is to know us. We give up our personal data so easily and cheaply to those who make our lives easier. We see Facebook and Google as great bargains because they are free and easy-to-use. We need to know how much we are worth. We need to know how much we actually end up paying for what is so free and easy.