Author Archives: Gerry McGovern

Complexity and networks favor teams

The Internet is a network. It’s not a hierarchy. In fact, the DNA of the Internet is a distributed network that has no hierarchy, has no center-point. On the Internet, there is no one definitive way to get to anywhere. The best way at any given moment depends on the exact circumstances of that given moment.

The Internet is remaking human society, how we organize, how we interact, make decisions, do things. And the Internet is part of a general trend driven by complexity, rapid change, and increasingly global interconnectedness, which demands a network response, a team response.

In Ireland, there is a game called hurling which goes back thousands of years into myth and legend. This year has been an extraordinary year for hurling, with some of the best games in memory. Limerick ended up winning the All-Ireland Final. Limerick, and their beaten finalists, Galway, were very much team-driven. Ireland has another unique sport called Gaelic football. Dublin is dominating and Dublin is team-driven too.

Team-driven means that there are no superstars, no individuals upon which everything depends. The team is the unit of performance. Both Gaelic football and hurling have speeded up enormously in recent years. In such fast, frenetic, unpredictable environments, the idea of a manager orchestrating play is simply not possible. The purpose of the manager is to help build a team that, once it goes out on the pitch, is able to adapt and make decisions based on what is happening. Sure, there is a game plan, but it is at the edges of the game plan where games are won. The players—the team—need to become the decision makers, the leaders.

A key factor in successful sports team dynamics, whether it be for Limerick, Galway, Dublin or the New Zealand All Blacks, is humility. In complex, fast-paced environments, those that thrive are those who want to constantly learn, who are hungry for performance data, those who are willing to fit in when fitting in is the right option, and stand out when the moment demands.

It is more and more difficult for an individual to succeed on their own today. The unified, cohesive team has a greater chance to deal with uncertainty and speed. As the speed of change increases, the need for teams become even greater. As complexity increases, the need for teams increases. Individuals can simply not keep up with the pace of change we face today.

Of course, individual talent matters. However, on its own it has little chance against a cohesive team. Of course, there is still a need for introverts and the insights that they can bring. However, at some point, the insights must feed into a team or a network if anything of real importance is going to be achieved. The lonely scientific genius is an increasingly endangered species. We may love to hear stories about mavericks who buck the system, but these are modern-day fairytales. The future is a team sport.

Collaborating with the enemy

“Instinctive cooperativeness is the very hallmark of humanity and what sets us apart from other animals,” Matt Ridley wrote in The Origins of Virtue. However, he also stated that, “It is a rule of evolution to which we are far from immune that the more cooperative societies are, the more violent the battles between them.”

Tightly knit communities are a wonderful thing unless you are an outsider. Some of the most destructive forces in history have been large, highly cooperative groups. The challenge today is how do we collaborate with those who we do not readily recognize as being part of our group.

The world has never been more interconnected. It is impossible for a country to achieve a decent standard of living if it doesn’t import and export. And it’s not just goods and services. It’s ideas and learning as well.

Progress is a multicultural, multidisciplinary collaborative sport. In 1900, the average number of authors per scientific paper was about one. By 2010, it was more than 5. “Over the past five years, the number of papers in the Nature Index with more than a thousand authors has surged from zero to a hundred,” Nature wrote in 2018.

It’s not simply about quantity. A study by the UK Royal Society found that international collaboration led to better science that had a positive impact on societies and economies. Numerous studies show that scientific papers based on international collaboration are likely to be cited up to twice as often as those from a single country. “One in four scientific articles produced around the world were cosigned by a foreign collaborator in 2014, compared to one in five a decade earlier,” stated a UNESCO report.

It’s not simply about multicountry collaboration. Scientific discovery “increasingly requires the expertise of individuals with different perspectives—from different disciplines and often from different nations—working together to accommodate the extraordinary complexity of today’s science and engineering challenges,” the US National Science Foundation stated in 2006.

The greater the rate of change and the greater the increase in complexity, the greater the need for multidisciplinary, multicultural collaboration. Individuals and single discipline / cultural groups tend to think in like-minded, conventional ways. Novelty and innovation are more likely to be produced by the combining ideas and cultures.

Our greatest challenges today are how to create systems and structures that nurture and reward such diverse collaborative efforts. Old minds want to build walls. New minds want to build bridges. The objective is not to destroy the silos but rather to bridge and connect them so that they can actively interact and germinate new ideas.

Scientists are not by nature the most sociable, but they have found that if they want to actually solve complex problems, they must collaborate widely. It is no surprise that the rise in scientific collaboration maps almost exactly with the rise of the Web.

Never in human history has there been a multidisciplinary, multicultural tool like the Web. Let’s use the Web to connect outside our peer groups and comfort zones, because it is out there at the messy edges where the greatest fount of innovation and creativity lies.

Trend and impact of international collaboration in clinical medicine papers published in Malaysia

International scientific collaboration has become a must, says report



Keeping digital teams happy versus keeping customers happy

I remember presenting to a digital team about how their website was massively too big, with thousands of pages of low quality, often out-of-date content. Metadata and general findability was terrible. There were apps hanging around that had never functioned properly. Everything was a big mess; a really terrible customer experience.

I was listened to politely. Most agreed that things were terrible. But not all. “It would be nice to fix these problems,” on person said. “But the team needs also to be able to do exciting things. We need to be able to innovate.”

A lot of the work involved in delivering an excellent customer / user experience is boring. Reviewing and removing out-of-date content is never going to be as exciting as creating and publishing new content. Getting involved in a project to create a marketing video is always going to be more interesting than writing a clear and easy to follow set of instructions on how to install a product.

In most organizations, those who sell and market are the ‘creatives’ and the stars. Those who service and support are outsourced and ignored. Many marketers and communicators find it really difficult to give control to customers because that means giving up control.

When you come to most websites, they communicate a very clear message: ‘Here’s the one (or perhaps two-three) journeys we’ve designed for you. These are our priorities for the next quarter. Hope you enjoy.’ However, if you as a customer want to do anything other than the journeys defined by marketing, it’s hard. These websites are telling you that they have decided what experience they want you to have. They’re there to convert you.

That’s not the way it works on the Web. Digital is do-land. To search is to try to find something. Every search begins with a word or a series of words, and these words reflect a need that you have to answer a question or solve a problem. Google is not a TV that tells you what you should search for today. Google is an empty canvas that you paint your journey upon.

We must align the needs and interests of digital professionals with the needs and interests of customers. Otherwise, we get products and services that are more designed for digital professionals, their managers and peers,than for customers.

When you visit a city, how much of your experience is based on driving on a brand new motorway, riding a brand new subway, visiting a brand new restaurant or museum. Probably very little. You drive on motorways, ride subways, visit restaurants and museums that were built years ago.

We must encourage a digital team culture that takes pride and fulfilment in maintaining and evolving what already exists because the Web is growing up. A lot has been built, and unfortunately very little of what has been built is being well maintained.

To change the culture, we must change the reward system. We must start rewarding more those who maintain, who care for, who evolve, who review, who take away, who prune, who simplify serve. The metrics need to shift from production to consumption.

If you really want to deliver excellent customer experience, then measure use and usefulness. Measure how easy it is for customers to find and use the things they want to find and use.

Toxic branding and how to counteract it

Branding has become synonymous with graft, deceit, manipulation, fake news.

A friend of mine, Felipe, is a Brazilian doctor. “Coca Cola is horrible,” he told me recently. “Everyone in Coca Cola knows it’s horrible. Everyone in the TV industry knows it’s horrible. But they make money off each other, and that’s all that matters. We have big TV personalities who like to talk about nutrition and healthy eating, and then they do ads promoting Coca Cola. Everyone has a price, I suppose.”

Branding has become a toxic stew of the worst forms of psychological manipulation. Branding understands us at a deep, subconscious level. It knows all our triggers, our buttons. it seeks to pull and push them until we open up out wallets and credit cards.

Of course, not all branding is toxic. Some brands have genuine worth. They actually deliver products and services of value. They deliver stuff that’s useful. However, when we look at so many of the brand superstars that the world so much admires, they are toxic and have been for a long time. Coca Cola, Pepsi, McDonald’s, Nike, H&M are driving obesity and diabetics epidemics, squeezing poor employees in sweatshops, pumping toxins into the environment. As Western populations become more educated and thus immune to their toxic marketing and advertising, they head to juicier picking grounds.

Some years ago my wife and myself went to the beautiful country of Tanzania. But the cities and towns were blighted by Pepsi and Coca Cola ad wars. Shops and all sorts of buildings were painted in their toxic brands. Their billboards roared: “Middle class? Show it!! Drink Coca Cola.” These brands are out to ruin the health of Tanzanians just to make some sleazy profit.

The toxic thinking that these brands spew out has seeped into the entire culture of marketing and advertising. It goes like this: “People are fools. They’re easy to trick. The more you trick them the more money you make. Just do it.”

People are not as easy to trick as they used to be. A combination of better education and declining disposable incomes have made many people truly think about what they buy and why they buy it. Sure, there are millions of gullible people out there, but there are also millions of people who will respond better to brands that are delivering genuine value and are not destroying health and the environment.

Today, we are at a tipping point. On one side, we have dictators and big brands spewing out their toxic fake news and easy answers. In the messy, complex middle, there are no easy answers, no jingoistic slogans, just a constant bumpy path of uncertainty.

We have huge challenges ahead, but we have made huge progress. It can all go backwards if we let the dictators and toxic brands dominate our world. If we let them keep pulling our emotional levers and pushing those hot buttons, we will all suffer.

Every single decision we make, every single day, makes a difference on a global scale. For better or worse, the world is now a giant and ever-growing inter-dependent network. Let’s network. Let’s join and build networks that work for positive change. Let’s work for transparency. Let’s get the information out there.

Be useful. Don’t be used.


Sometimes chasing volume does make sense

There are digital business models which do require an obsession with volume. These business models capture attention and then sell that attention to advertisers. Attention, of course, is an extremely valuable resource today.

“Facebook moderators were instructed not to remove extreme, abusive or graphic content from the platform even when it violated the company’s guidelines, an undercover investigation has found,” RTE reported in June 2018.

“While nudity is almost always removed, violent videos involving assaults on children, racially charged hate speech and images of self-harm among underage users all remained on Facebook after being reported by users and reviewed by moderators.”

A particularly shocking video featured in the Channel Four undercover programme “showed an adult man punching and stamping on a screaming toddler,” according to the RTE report. Facebook moderators used this video in training sessions as an example of acceptable content.

We need to understand the Facebook perspective here. One moderator filmed in the programme said: “If you start censoring too much then people stop using the platform. It’s all about money at the end of the day.”

RTE reported that, “In one training session filmed by Channel Four, the group is shown a cartoon of a woman drowning a young white girl in a bathtub, accompanied by the caption “when your daughter’s first crush is a little negro boy”. The Facebook trainer explained that such images should be ignored by moderators because they captured a lot of attention.

This is the type of stuff you have to do when you’re obsessed by volume. All your focus needs to be on how you maximize the clicks. How do you create more digital junkies and addicts? The customer’s time and attention are the target of your obsession. You combine attention and profiling information and then package that into a product you sell to advertisers.

That’s the Facebook ‘community’ model. However, most websites should take the exact opposite approach. It is the customer who needs to be treated as the advertiser. When someone searches for “cheap flight Dublin” and if you sell cheap flights to Dublin, then you already have their attention. What you must do now is help them complete their task of buying a cheap flight to Dublin.

On Facebook, people don’t mind wasting their time because they’ve got time to waste. On the vast majority of websites, the last thing they have is time to waste. On Facebook and other media and ‘community’ websites, the customer is the product that is sold to the advertiser.

On websites that sell products and services, the customer is the advertiser that you need to sell to. They are placing ads by how they search, by how they click, indicating what they need. You need to meet their needs as quickly as possible. It is entirely the wrong approach to be trying to engage, interact or convert them. Instead of trying to grab their attention, pay attention to them. Pay attention to what they searched for. Pay attention to their intent. Pay attention to the journey they want to go on. Pay attention to their time. And don’t waste it.

Facebook moderators instructed not to remove extreme content



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.