How grandma sees the remote

As remote controls and mobile phones become increasingly baroque in their complexity, more and more of us find ourselves pressing the wrong buttons at the wrong times. I press the wrong button three times a day on my K800i.

But Grandma has an extra problem: she worries that by pressing the wrong button she will break things or hurt herself.

How grandma sees the remote: a New Yorker Cartoon.

Big picture here at Book of Joe. And you can buy the cartoon from the New Yorker.

Designing to overcome that is a major challenge. But if you can do it, the magic part is that millions of other people who thought they were more sophisticated than grandma will suddenly love your product too. Because it’s simple and supportive.

1 anti-strategy for prospering in a downturn

Thanks, Debre, for pointing out the strategy that Starbucks have been following: cutting costs and downgrading service in a bid to stave off competition from MacDonalds.

From the Guardian…

The troubled coffee chain Starbucks, renowned for its elaborate frappuccinos and mochas, is going back to basics by testing a cut-price brew costing only $1 (51p). Fighting slowing growth at its US stores, the firm is offering an eight-ounce “short” measure of ready-made coffee for a price undercutting fast-food rivals such as McDonald’s in a trial at branches in its home city of Seattle.

This looks like an appalling strategy. For the simple reason that it focuses on coffee.

Experience vs Commodity

Starbucks didn’t build a business on selling coffee. Coffee is cheap. They built a business on selling a customer experience.

The term they used was a “third place” a restful, aromatic, aesthetically pleasing, sociable space that is neither work nor home. Coffee was the hub of it, but without the surrounding experience, would any of us really consent to pay two pounds a cup?

Apparently, the experience is now all but gone. And hence it’s becoming rather difficult to justify the price tag for coffee alone. More from the Guardian…

Schultz recently warned in a leaked internal memo that the brand’s charm was in danger of diminishing as it became a mainstream “commodity”. He said the sense of theatre had evaporated, thanks to automatic espresso machines, and he complained some stores even no longer had an aroma of fresh ground coffee due to vacuum-sealed packaging.

A starbucks coffee dispenser - no no no!

Innovation pundit Bruce Nussbaum relates his recent experience of walking into a Starbucks in New York City…

I thought […] I’m going to feel like a sausage on an assembly line, waiting, talking to people not paying attention, then waiting again. And for what? A cup of coffee? It was all so transactional. I don’t need Starbucks for that.

CEOs who get it

Apple has been down this road. During their darkest hour, they were producing a bewildering array of uninspiring machines and an ageing, unreliable operating system. They wanted to compete with the frequently drab IBM PC clones, and in so doing seemed to forget their “think different” mantra. It was Steve Jobs, much to everyone’s surprise, who put Apple back on track by helping it deliver a unique user experience again – starting with the brightly coloured iMac.

It seems that Starbucks has also smelled the coffee. Howard Schultz, the newly appointed chief executive is the guy who built Starbucks up in the first place. He does seem to know what he’s doing – note that he talks about the “sense of theatre”.

So why the $1 cup of coffee? No matter home much pressure Starbucks is under, competing on price to “lure” customers back in doesn’t make sense for an experience-based company. Better to refurbish the stores, refocus the staff and refresh the coffee. Then let word of mouth bring customer back for what they were always buying anyway: the experience.

3 design-based strategies for beating an economic downturn (Part 3)

The strategies, as mentioned in the previous post:

  1. Innovate your way out
  2. Optimise, to squeeze more from what you have
  3. Cut costs by improving the customer experience

Let’s take a look at strategy 3.

Cut costs by improving the customer experience

Customer experience got a mention in the previous post. It’s the idea that every interaction that a customer has with your organisation, via whatever channel, contributes to the impression they form of your brand. Your branding and advertising makes a promise. Customer experience is about delivering on it.

There are two ways to use customer experience design to save money:

  1. Encourage your customers to migrate to lower cost channels
  2. Reduce the overall service load by building a customer experience that works

Encourage your customers to migrate to lower cost channels

Many businesses have found that the web is now channel to market. That’s great, customers love the flexibility and business love the cost savings. So, to reduce costs in a downturn, make sure that your customers migrate to the channels that cost you less. Hardly rocket science.

But actually getting customers to migrate can pose a challenge. How do you persuade them to move?

Some businesses have been known to deliberately increase call queuing times to encourage customers to try online self service. This is a good way to annoy customers. Others have tried customer education campaigns – generally a good way to bore customers. In reality you can’t force people to use a channel they don’t want to. You can only entice them with a great website customer experience. entices you to check in online

A great example: British Airways. Their strategy is to reduce the number of staff on check-in desks. To do that, they need to reduce the duration of each customer check-in. And to do that, they need to get customers to adopt online check-in. The website has been steadily optimised over the years. It has reached the point now where I actively choose to fly BA, just so that I can use their online check-in. It’s easy and clear, you can select your seat easily, and you get to zip through check-in quickly. They’ve enticed me to use their online channel and everyone wins.

Reduce the overall service load by building a continuous customer experience

When things go wrong, customers want to talk to a human being quickly and set things straight. Enabling human contact is a reality of delivering a good overall customer experience. But a typical call centre call can cost between 7 and 20 pounds to handle, when you factor in facilities, training, salary and benefits. So avoiding the events that generate call customer service calls is very important for controlling costs.

Customers call when they encounter a breakdown in the continuity of a customer experience. A breakdown can occur at different levels:

  • Within channel: Eg. One member of staff has no information about a previous conversation with a customer. This kind of stuff is quite rare, mercifully.
  • Between channels: In one project, Flow found that customers referred to the online channel found registration so difficult and confusing, they had to call the call centre back to get help.
  • Between organisations: In one Flow project, we discovered that customers could not top up their mobile phone accounts because the 3rd party retailer they had bought from had not correctly registered the sim card and provided the customer with a PIN. Another example: incorrect payment details on an airline website generated calls to a the airline, but also to the customers banks.

How to build a continuous customer experience:

  • Hunt down the discontinuities. Look at call centre logs. Look at website logs. Interview retail staff. Run a research project to get “mystery shoppers” or real consumers to try the process out for you.
  • Work out the cost of the discontinuities. How many calls does it take to address the problem? What opportunity is missed if the customer fails to resolve the issue? How many customers are encountering the problem? Multiplying the numbers up will give you a rationale and a business case for choosing particular problems to address.
  • Fix the discontinuity. Often, a small fix makes a big difference. Making sure a piece of information is made available in the right place at the right time often does wonders. But sometimes the fix will require major system alterations. If those changes can’t be justified or undertaken in the short term, look for a way to patch the service: a work-around. (I blogged an amusing example of this a while back: Microsoft’s new software boxes are hard to open, so Microsoft patched the issue and published instructions online).
  • Measure the results. To prove the project made a difference, look for reductions in the relevant call types. Look for increases in usage of the problem channel. And the most powerful evidence of all: look for improvements in your bottom line.

Organisations that work to improve the customer experience benefit from reduced costs. They can entice customers to the most cost-effective channels and they generate fewer negative customer experiences and fewer expensive service calls.

3 design-based strategies for beating an economic downturn (Part 2)

The strategies, as mentioned in the previous post:

  1. Innovate your way out
  2. Optimise, to squeeze more from what you have
  3. Cut costs by improving the customer experience

Let’s take a look at strategy 2.

Strategy 2: Optimise to squeeze more from what you have

This is primarily a marketing strategy. The idea: find out why your customers buy, and what stops them from buying. Then do more of the good stuff, and fix the bad stuff.

Digital marketers make a lot of noise about acquiring new customers. That’s certainly an essential element of a successful business. But keeping your customers happy when they get to you is worthy of at least as much attention. There’s a rule of thumb: acquiring a new customer is 6-10 times more expensive than retaining an existing customer. So a solid strategy when times are hard is to plug the holes in your “leaky bucket,” and stop website visitors from pouring out as fast as you can pour them in.

A leaky bucket, by trosanelli

(The data that actually supports the rule of thumb is hard to come by. And I think the cost of retention is tricky to calculate because customer retention comes from good customer experience, and that comes from every area of your business. But there is some useful data quoted here at Wikipedia).

The key words: conversion and loyalty

Conversion is about making a prospective customer actually complete a transaction and buy something from you. Loyalty is about bringing them come back to shop with you again.

Ways to improve online conversion

Some good, cheap tactics:

But there’s a problem. None of them ever brings you into direct contact with target customers. And that means that although you when customers drop out, you never know why customers drop out. What was missing from the product descriptions? How did the buying process not match customer needs? What did competitor websites do for them that yours didn’t?

The best way to optimise is to mix stats with usability tests. Stats tell you what is going on on your site, and where trouble spots may lie. Usability tests tell you what the causes of the problems are and what customers really want from you.

So. Killer tactics to really improve conversion:

  • Run face to face customer tests to understand usability, customer intention and customer workflow
  • Use intercept and track tools on your website to mix free-form response with clickstream recording

Ways to boost loyalty

Loyalty comes from an emotional connection. Here are some things that cause positive emotions about websites:

  • Human engagement. Two good solutions: an approachable style and an online community. ( is a good example of both).
  • Polite interaction. As customers we want suggestions and ideas, but we want to stay in control. We don’t want hard sell, intrusive questions or spam. If we feel free to walk away, we feel safe to come back.
  • Getting what you want. Google has built the world’s most powerful brand by giving people the information they want reliably. And Amazon suggest books and CDs you didn’t even know you wanted, but invariably find that you do. Both of these sites have gone the extra mile in making it easy for customers to find things. Because if customers can’t find things quickly, they won’t stick around.
  • Customer-first behaviour at all touch points. As a customer, I have to know that you will look after me. If my item is lost during shipping or if I want to return it – give me the facility to sort my problems out quickly and efficiently online. And of course, Amazon is reknown for the high standard of care they offer right through the customer experience. And they’re looking good because if it.

Improving conversion rates, and building customer loyalty are really important strategies for surviving and prospering in a downturn. And often, its easy to make improvements in small steps too.

You’ll love part 3: Cut costs by improving the customer experience.

3 design-based strategies for beating an economic downturn (Part 1)

The economic prospects for 2008 don’t look too promising for the world’s most developed economies. We’re in for a slowdown, or possibly something worse.

When market conditions change, it stands to reason that a change in strategy can make sense. I’ve got 3 design related strategies that will prove useful if there are lean times ahead.

  1. Innovate your way out
  2. Optimise, to squeeze more from what you have
  3. Cut costs by improving the customer experience

There’s quite a lot to each one of them so I’m going to post them one at a time.

Strategy 1: Innovate your way out

If you’re not going to make enough money from what you’re already doing, come up with something new for a new source of revenue.

Apple provides an impressive example. Here’s a quote from the San Francisco Chronicle in 2001, when times were hard for the IT industry and the whole US economy:

“Apple has maintained its workforce at about 11,000 throughout the year. In a meeting with analysts last week, Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs said: “Almost every single competitor has been doing massive layoffs and retrenching and restructuring, but we’re doing quite the opposite. We’re not laying off boatloads of people. We’re taking those talented people and saying that if we’re going to get out of this, we’re going to get out of it by innovating our way out of it.”

If you have managed to put some cash put by for a rainy day, Steve Job’s approach is a good way to go. But only if you know how to innovate properly. Innovation doesn’t mean throwing money at blue sky projects and hoping for miracles. You can cut out masses of risk by using a structured design process:

  • Contextual research. This isn’t market research with surveys and focus groups. Contextual research is about observing and participating in people’s lives to get the dirty truth about what they need, what they want and how they behave. The innovation often seems obvious when you’ve got the right information.
  • Conceptual thinking. Get your team together. Have lots of ideas. Stay out of the details and explore the new and usual stuff – that’s where inspiration comes from.
  • Evaluation with target users. Make cheap prototypes any which way you can, and watch target customers try it out. Even if the feedback is not what you want to hear, it’s better to face harsh reality in the R&D lab than out in the open market.
  • Iteration. Your first attempt will be shaky. Keep testing and fixing your product’s design until your customers tell you its ready.

Start now, and ride the up-cycle

Depending on your line of business, getting a new product design and launched can take a while. So innovate during the downturn, when talented staff are at their most faithful and affordable, and be in position to ride the up cycle when it comes.

When times are hard, it feels safe to keep a low profile – cut back, don’t take risks. But if your current strategy doesn’t fit the climate, doing nothing might well be riskier. If you’d like more insight into how innovation can help businesses prosper, Bruce Nussbaum has a list of ten books you should read.

Strategy 2 will be: Optimise, to squeeze more from what you have.

OLPC: Small thinking vs big thinking

A great quote from an OLPC spokesman about why some governments are not following through on ordering educational laptops from the OLPC initiative.

“It has not been that processor versus that processor or that operating system versus that operating system – it’s been small thinking versus big thinking. That’s really the issue.

Change equals risk especially for politicians. And we are certainly advocating change because the [education] system is failing these children.”

However, a Nigeria’s education minister replies,

What is the sense of introducing One Laptop per Child when they don’t have seats to sit down and learn; when they don’t have uniforms to go to school in, where they don’t have facilities?

Maybe you don’t need a seat or a uniform or a roof to engage productively with a computer. Purveyors of mobile computing in developed countries are trying to convince us of that. But other studies say hyper-mobility is a myth: you need somewhere safe and quiet before you can do any real thinking. Maybe it just depends on the person, and the context they are used to existing in.
Young girl carrying XO laptop

See the BBC News article: Politics ‘stifling $100 laptop’

There’s also some great video and a wonderful slideshow of trials in Nigeria.

DIS 2008 and design for developing economies

I’m excited. I’ve just registered for Designing Interactive Systems 2008, in Cape Town, South Africa.

African woman selling cell phonesA man using a cellphone in rural AfricaUnix-branded bike!

It’s at least partially about interaction design for less developed countries. Here’s a key chunk of blurb:

“At DIS 2008 we want to bring together people from different cultures and understand how designs and techniques employed in affluent high-technology environments can be translated to relatively poor environments to be used by people with relatively low literacy levels. Due to the prevalence of cellular handsets throughout the continent, many Africans are now having their first experience of interactive technology. We believe that DIS 2008 will be an important step in understanding how to design interactive systems for these new users.”

It’s a huge and wicked topic, and I’m looking forward to learning more about it.

For now, here are a few interesting dimensions:

  • Emerging economies are big, so designing for them is terribly important. Mobile phone manufacturers have been exploiting the massive growth in emerging markets for at least a couple of years now. In Q3 of 2007 Nokia sold nearly 112 million devices, and reports that sales of handsets in emerging markets have soared. The number of Chinese Internet users was estimated in June 2007 to be 162 million people.
  • Some developing economies have developed further than others. Does interaction design really have any relevance to people living on a dollar a day or less? I can’t see it. At the base of Maslow’s pyramid, people have more pressing concerns. But there are emerging market economies, newly industrialised economies and less developed countries to consider. So its important not to reject ideas that can work well for one group or environment, just because it won’t suit others.
  • OLPC is a great case study. Is it the biggest, brashest example of ill-informed western ideals meeting “third world” reality? Or will the kid-powered network triumph over geographical, cultural and political constraints and help a new generation to learn by doing? It’s interesting to watch.As discussed above, there are some countries where it won’t work. Spending money on digital technology makes no sense when you don’t have books, a teacher or a reliable source of clean water.
  • Opportunities look different in each place. In South Africa, only 8% of people can get online from home. A lot of the population can’t afford the high local price of broadband, or the cost of a computer to plug into it. There are a range of interesting results. 3G is more popular, and mobile operators subsidise laptops, as well as handsets. There’s also a community that relies strongly on internet cafes for getting online.In Nigeria, where conditions are different again, you can buy a goat and pay by transferring mobile airtime minutes.

So – designing for developing contexts is complicated. Just like any form of design. And the only sound approach is to do contextual research, to make sure really understand the reality of whatever niche you’re designing for.

DIS 2008 is at the end of February. I’ll blog about what I learn.

Most Governments won’t buy OLPC – will you?

On the 12th November, the One Laptop Per Child initiative will begin a limited “give one get one” programme. For $399, people in the USA can buy an XO1 laptop for themselves, and at the same time have one donated for use in a developing country.

This seems to be because OLPC isn’t going to sell nearly as many units as expected to governments of developing countries. There was lots of nodding and smiling when Nicholas Negroponte talked to the world’s education ministers and heads of state, but not much signing on the dotted line.

Give 1 get 1

A good while back the Indian Ministry Of Human Resource Development rejected the XO1 as “pedagogically suspect.” China also rejected it. For both countries, reasons are more likely to be political than pedagogical – but whatever the reasons, they are big markets to lose.

The Libyan government’s promised order is not materialising.

“I have to some degree underestimated the difference between shaking the hand of a head of state and having a check written,” said Nicholas Negroponte, chairman of the nonprofit project. “And, yes, it has been a disappointment.

Competitive pressure

The competition aren’t hanging around.

Intel’s Classmate is making headway, and the pricepoint is not far from that of OLPC. Intel doesn’t want to see the global educational computing market dominated by the OLPC’s AMD chips. There are allegations of Nigeria switching allegiance to Intel after some shady dealings.

Microsoft have similar concerns to Intel. They’re working on a version of windows that will install on the XO hardware.

Not that there is much XO hardware yet. Manufacturing has got off to a slow start. There are not going to be enough machines to satisfy Paraguay’s order by Christmas. (Paraguay loves OLPC – and they are putting their money where mouth is).

OLPC supporters called for a change of sales tactics and a new initiative to “get them out in the market.” The belief is that the XO1 laptops will prove themselves once people can see them in action. Hence the “Give 1 Get 1” idea.

I still love this project

I’m a big fan of this project – even though everyone tells me I’m an idealistic fool.

I personally want and XO1. I’m pondering whether to ask my friend in the states to get me one. Why?

  • They are wonderful objects, well designed by committed, talented people
  • They represent a vision for kid-powered education that transcends politics, propaganda, race, class, poverty and geography. There’s power in networks that delivers unexpected, astonishing results. Look at Google, Facebook or the blogsphere. I want to see that happen again. (I think I may be a constructivist).
  • In spite of all the controversy no one is saying that the user experience of the machine itself is anything other than wonderful.

A report from research in India…

“Even when English and Marathi are so different, even when the keyboard is in English, even when the interface is in English, even when we don’t speak each other’s language, and even when they are so new to computers, the XO is so user-friendly that I can manage to get across to them, to show them how to do something with it. And in little time, and having lots of fun, the children of a completely different language are doing this or that on their XOs.”

CHildren in Marathi, India
A headmistress in Nigeria…

“You know education is not static. Education changes, and as it changes the world it self changes. The way I passed through education is not to compare with nowadays education. Also children themselves today are more curious than before.”

Harsh realities

Well, the debate rages on. And I mean rages!

It looks like a very rocky road ahead for the XO1. All the designers I know in Africa say the XO1 doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell. Life out here is just too tough, they say.

A sobering example: XO1s can run on Solar power. But the networks that support them can’t. They need generators.

“From the Nigeria Chapter of the Club of Rome, we learn that the generator has to be stored in the principal’s office to prevent theft, requires costly gasoline, and servicing that can take days. Worst of all, the generator broke down, burning out the UPS for the Internet, and its still insufficient for all the power needs of the school.”

Ah well. A man can dream, can’t he?

Little girld usign XO1 klaptop in the car

It IS a bubble

Hilariously sarcastic posting from Marc Andreessen (the guy who started Netscape) and now runs Ning.
His point: It may be a bubble – but is that a bad thing?
(Note that because he caters for an American audience, poor Mr Andreessen has had to put a disclaimer on his post pointing out that it is sarcasm.)
I could quote the whole thing. But I shall restrain myself…

“It’s a bubble.

A huge, massive, inflating bubble.

We’re all doomed.

Doomed, I say!

It’s all over.

Stick a fork in it.

It has ceased to be.

The metabolically-differenced lady has sung.”

Entrepreneurs? Smoking dope. What are they thinking? Why aren’t they all working for Apple, helping to build a fatter Nano? What’s wrong with them? Potsmoking, mussed-hair, rooftop party-going, trendy glasses-wearing, sandal-clad, Red Bull-snorting, laid-getting wankers, the lot of ’em. The sooner they realize the world never changes and there are no new opportunities to pursue, the better.”

You big companies — you eBays, you Yahoos, you Googles, you Amazons? Yes, and you, Microsoft? Think the new new B2B — back to boring. What’s with all these new products? The world is confusing enough. Shut ’em down and let’s go back to the good old days: Windows ME, Mac OS 9, dialup modems, and 640 megabytes ought to be enough for everyone. You’re just screwing us all over with all this new fancy broadband video-enabled phone-call-making wifi web-based lightweight touch-interface gorgeous long-battery-life flimflam — just look at how you keep dropping the damn prices.”

He’s right- there is money to be made and value to be generated.  But the Web and and tech business is skittish: full of me-toos, charlatans and snake oil salesmen. So there’s also time and money to be frittered away chasing the hype.  We’re in another “Cambrian explosion” of technology. Much of it will be killed off by the selecting force of the market. Just make sure you’re not invested in a species that goes extinct.

The winners will be businesses that understand customer needs, behaviours and motivations and that really work to create easy, useful, delightful products and services.

The whole post is here.

A balanced user experience starts with the box

Recently, Joel Spolsky pointed out the brilliantly obvious: the groovy new boxes for Microsoft’s next generation of software offer a poor user experience. As Joel points out,

A box that many people can’t figure out how to open without a Google search is an unusually pathetic failure of design.

For those of you who want the full details, my colleague Karl Sabino has dug out the official Microsoft help page for opening the box.

1. Cut the tape along the edges of the box

2. Peel the label off the front of the box3. Pull the red tab to the right to open the box

Yes that’s right. A help page for the packaging.

I’d love to know the traffic stats for this page. By assuming that each page impression corresponds to about 10 minutes of user frustration, we could calculate the total amount of customer time wasted by this nonsense.

Still, I guess we should be thankful that the same designers aren’t working on the escape slides for Boeing.

Balancing easy, useful and delightful

Microsoft have recently been talking about the importance of the aesthetic quality of a good user experience. Good for them. It’s very important. Beautiful products make us more likely to try them out and, by putting us in the right frame of mind, make us more effective at actually using them.

But this box seems to illustrate the problems of going too far towards the aesthetic, and forgetting the easy/useful part of the equation. It’s cute, groovy, cool – but it’s a pain to use. And that’s not a balanced user experience. That’s where the web was back in 1998, and we all thought things had moved on since then.

“It’s a business requirement”

Maybe the box is hard to open for business reasons. Perhaps its some anti piracy measure or linked to the licensing agreement.

That’s no excuse. If a business “need” inconveniences customers, it needs to be re-thought. Why? Because if you treat your customers badly, they’ll treat you badly – asking for additional expensive support, requiring heavy marketing expenditure to avoid churn, damaging your brand with negative blog posts. Which all cost you money in the end. In the words of Colin Shaw, “You get the customers you deserve.”

Patching the hole

One thing that Microsoft have done right: issued a “service patch”. They know there’s a problem with the customer experience and they’ve done what they can in the short term to take the edge off the problem. They’ve published a web page. The next step is to stick the instructions to the box, so that you don’t have to search the web to find them.