Saturday, January 25, 2014

Happy Anniversary, old friend!

Thirty years ago, I bought my first computer.  Now I had been using computers for several years prior, but this is the first time I plunked down my own precious cash to buy one myself.  Most of my college friends had either held on to hand-me-down Apple //'s or bought a piece-of-shit IBM PC knockoff, but I had the opportunity to jump on a new train.  It was a risky train, because this computer didn't have a color monitor, couldn't be opened up and extended, and it looked completely different than anything else. It was a Mac 512k (big upgrade from the original 128k!), and I was going to be the first in my friend-group to own one.

I remember that even with a student discount, it cost an arm and a leg.  When I brought it into work to show my boss and colleagues, they all laughed.  "It's cute!"  I remember having to rationalize my decision and explain to the less-than-technical executives that even though it looked simplistic and cartoonish, it was very, very sophisticated.  I had to explain that even though the monitor was black and white (and small), the pixels were square!  You can imagine that in a world of corporate desktop computers that all looked alike (a rectangular box with a disk drive in front and a monitor on top), my little Mac looked like a Fisher-Price toy. But I was ok with it, and as the months passed, people started to think that maybe I wasn't such an idiot.

I also remember the first piece of software I wrote on that Mac.  Well, maybe I'm forgetting some boring stuff that I did because I had to, but my first fun little project was a game called "Wheel of Inebriation".  You see, back then, as today, Pat Sajak and Vanna White were on TV and quite popular.  So I made a graphical multi-player game that was like Wheel of Fortune, but instead of dollar amounts on the wheel, the game had you consume various amounts of inebriants.  It was basically Pass-Out meets Wheel of Fortune. My game had a little animated Pat and Vanna who would walk around on screen as the wheel was spinning. I was quite proud.

Over the years, my Mac didn't scale well.  The external hard drive was expensive.  And the floppy drives were finicky.  One day, the monitor didn't come on.  By that time, I had other computers, so the Mac was really a back up computer for basic document editing.  Instead of putting money into getting it fixed, I simply packed it up in its padded carrying case, and stowed it away.

Given all the recent talk of the 30th anniversary, I decided to dig the dusty old heap out of the garage and relive the excitement of unboxing.  Plus, I needed to show my youngest what personal computers used to look like.  So here's my 30 year unboxing experience.

The handy-dandy carrying case, cleaned of cobwebs

The remaining components, unboxed

I forgot how chunky the mouse and keyboard were!

Mac 512k, meet my MacBook Pro

So what's next for this old friend?  That's a good question.  I'm not going to attempt to get it running again (and I don't have the code for Wheel of Inebriation anymore, so what's the point?), but it would be fun to bring it into the Genius Bar just to see their reactions. I'm thinking of gutting it and putting some cool lights and speakers inside and use it as a portable sound system.  Or maybe a terrarium.  Or maybe something else.  Any ideas?

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Customer Experience Theater

I've observed and participated in a number of Customer Experience Initiatives (use air-quotes) over the years. They often start in response to a remarkably bad score reported by the customer service department, or FUD from competitors about poor customer satisfaction that eventually gets back to the head of sales or the CEO. If left unchecked, it becomes a barrier that must be overcome in sales situations. Rarely, but in spectacular fashion, there might be a customer experience failure of such epic proportion that it gets public attention. So in response, the company redoubles its efforts to improve customer experience, and launches a company-wide program. Even in less reactionary scenarios, where the company wants to leverage good customer experience as a competitive advantage, the tactics they pursue are similar. They involve measuring customer satisfaction at all the usual touch points: the sales process, billing and account management, and support. These measurements are assembled into a dashboard or scorecard and are periodically reported by the newly promoted Customer Care Czar. When the numbers go up month over month, everyone cheers! But is that really all that's involved in improving the customer's experience? To me, this resembles a sort of Customer Experience Theater that lets companies feel good about themselves and show attention to customer experience without really being invested in the root cause of substandard performance. Measuring outcomes seems a little late in the process to have a material (or sustainable) effect—necessary but not sufficient. When I think about an organization optimized for the experience of the customer, certain fundamental efforts come to mind.

Make your product or service better

Assuming your business offers a product or service, the usability and utility of that offering is the number one thing that affects how users think about your company. If all your focus is on how you resolve issues independent of how the product actually works, you're never going to win. Designing products around the user's work (not necessarily mimicking existing workflows, but improving and delivering value towards the user's underlying goals) is not a superficial endeavor. It requires a dedication to user experience design as a core competency, and that impacts the make-up of the product and development team and the type of ongoing research they perform. You must have a deep understanding of the context of the work your users are doing, and that's not easy. But how else are you going to build products that your customers consider truly useful and satisfying?

Think in terms of the customer's work, not yours

Most companies are structured to accomplish the things that generate revenue and sustain their existence. This leads to an organizational mindset that is inwardly focused and not so much focused on the type of work the customer does. I understand that your business may serve all kinds of customers who might do very different types of work. But your users have something in common, otherwise you wouldn't be able to serve them all with your offering. Every process within your organization has the potential to impact prospects and customers—as they evaluate competitive products, as they make a purchase, as they learn how the product works, as they become experts, and as they pursue their own goals. Do all the functions within your organization think about how their job impacts these concerns?

Change your systems and organization to actually do something about it

The biggest shortcoming I see in many customer experience initiatives is that they are focused on measurement rather than action, and that they are localized in a single function ("customer care") within the organization. If you really want to improve the experience of your customers, you need to make the customer an organizational centerpiece, which means systems that capture and illuminate their voice need to be accessible by every function within your business. This goes beyond the standard scorecards and dashboards you share each month. These systems need to expose not just support queries and csat scores, but also the types of questions prospects ask when evaluating solutions, and what success and failure they have in pursuit of their own goals. Then you need to empower everyone in your company to engage with those prospects and customers and do something that improves their experience. Doing something might involve providing advice or answering a question, asking questions and getting to know what the customer wants to accomplish, lobbying for a useful feature or capability, or blowing a whistle when something is broken.

What if everyone in your organization kept you honest with respect to the experience you were creating for your customers? What if they had the ability to change how they worked to improve that experience? That sort of behavior goes beyond Customer Experience Theater, and represents what I hope will become the standard for businesses in the social age.

Friday, July 05, 2013

The Art of Synthesis

I was reading this excellent article about how important it is for product managers to say 'No' and realized how many times I've read articles, posts, and heard lectures with the same message. Clearly this is an important discipline and big problem for product managers and development organizations—otherwise, why would so many people talk about it? Here's my take on the subject (apologies in advance to my product team who has had to listen to various renditions of this point of view from me recently).

I agree with all the pitfalls of ad hoc feature addition described in the article by Des Traynor. Great product design (I'm talking holistic design, not just UX or software architecture) doesn't come from a democratic system. It relies on the vision of the product manager/designer and that person's ability to crystalize and vividly convey the vision to a team. During implementation, details of what gets built will probably vary from the original vision, and the vision itself will evolve during iterative development, but the strength of the vision remains the single most important factor to the creation of a remarkable product.

Synthesis. Get it?

This doesn't mean I believe good products are conceived of by a product designer who works in a vacuum. Quite the opposite—and this is what makes product design so hard. Product designers must immerse themselves in a sea of input—from colleagues, customers, prospects, and the market. They must synthesize all this input into a vision that can be effectively delivered. The vision has to be sufficiently detailed, complete, and rational to thwart the onslaught of "oh, but you forgot about this!" and the various other concerns that Des talks about in his post. People—some of the most valuable in the organization—invariably play the role of the foil during the synthesis process. Thank them for that, as it helps you solidify your vision. But don't succumb to them. Your vision is strong and fully formed, and you must repeat it loudly and frequently for all to hear. There will be a cacophony of voices who will cloud the vision in the minds of stakeholders, so you must reaffirm and refine the picture in your head and find new and more effective ways to share it more loudly than all those other voices.

I don't blame the voices who cloud the vision or consider them evil saboteurs. Sometimes through analogy and the superficial treatment given the subject in posts like these we paint a black and white picture that casts them as the bad guys. They are not—they have a valid perspective and valid concerns. This is another thing that makes the product designer/manager/owner role so hard. Your vision and the effectiveness of how you convey it must allow those stakeholders to know that their input has been heard, considered, and played some role in the synthesis process. Each of their asks are likely not going to be addressed directly, and some might not be addressed at all. The power and integrity of your product vision must be great enough to let them know that their input was incorporated, if not literally, in what you are building.