Category Archives: work

Listen less, observe more. Human-centred designers must ask deeper questions

One of the most oft-repeated tropes of human-centred design is that we must pay attention to a person’s needs. These needs are often said to be identified through the observation of past behaviour. In digital (whatever that means these days) this is typically through the gathering of usage data. Sit in any pitch or briefing and it won’t be long before someone starts talking about dwell times, form drop offs and so on an so forth. Often a well-meaning ‘user experience’ staffer will pipe up about the need to develop personas, and a marketeer will add “based on our segmentation of course!” “of course!” they reply. Data is incontrovertible.

Really, businesses don’t like anecdotes. They’re not keen on stories (even if the managers are consuming books on storytelling and the engineers are developing use cases), so they rely on the known knowns – how people are using their site or service. It’s this, they say which informs us how people will use our experiences in the future.

I’m unconvinced. Increasingly I find myself resisting the temptation to read much into past behaviour. The empirical psychologist in me knows that, to be a predictor of future behaviour, fellow researchers have come to some agreement that there really are quite strict conditions for this to be the case:

  • The behaviour has to occur rather often (i.e. it’s high frequency).
  • The prediction is most accurate if based on a short time frame.
  • The predicted situation must be a close match for the past situation that the observation was made from.
  • The behaviour must not have been influenced by negative or corrective feedback.
  • The person must be unchanged and, finally,
  • The person must be generally consistent with their behaviours.

That’s quite a set of experimental conditions to maintain. Consider this, if your customer bought from your site or interacted with your brand once before, can you honestly assume that they will meet all those conditions on their return visit? Even with high-traffic repeat visits I’d contend that there’s sufficient variance to make predictions at the very least, wobbly. Add in a timeline of a few weeks or months (like financial services sites, for example) and your prediction is looking essentially worthless.

Demographics are not behaviours
Quite apart from the predictive past performance within your own brand experience, what does this mean in terms of inferring behaviour from others’ actions? One of my bugbears is the regurgitation of segmentation and demographic-led personas. Passed on from media buying and market research these exhibit the classic failure of data vs. insight, that is they offer no illumination. As an identical twin who shares the same postcode, age, socio economic group and racial profile as my brother, the lazy marketeer assumes I have the same needs and behaviours as he. Though there is some cross-over, there is much that is also different and to paint with broad strokes is to miss the kind of detail in human-centred design that creates real breakthroughs. Repeat after me: demographics are not behaviours.

In 2016 where profiling and polling were shown to be so woefully ineffective at determining voter action (c.f. Brexit, Trump), isn’t it time we took a long hard look at the way in which we interrogate and model human behaviour? Fortunately some are doing this and we might look to important contexts like criminology, where they are identifying the desistance curve as offenders age and applying Bayes’s theorem to calculate offenders’ likely behaviour.

Will it rain today?
Where this leaves us is in the area of accuracy. Ultimately, as Rory has asserted in the past, analogous to our weather forecasting, we’re getting better at predicting short term behaviours but still a long way off high-fidelity predictions for weeks and months ahead. What’s helped Dare and other progressive human-centred design teams is looking at what are the stable traits of human behaviour and, furthermore, rigorously considering what is the relevance and integrity of data that forms the inputs of our predictions; we should never draw general conclusions from specific observations and it is this inductive reasoning that plagues our profession.

Nate Silver’s seminal ‘Signal and the Noise’ is undeniably popular and his models had much early success but criticisms begin to be levelled quite fairly when attempts are made to model personal and social behaviour not financial markets. I wonder if, dear reader, you’ve read Taleb’s “Black Swan“? (If you have I wonder if you read all of it? I’ve met few people that have and if you’re like me you found it’s autobiographical style impenetrable, obfuscating and bombastic. Even the Wikipedia summary suffers a similar fate) in short Taleb makes the same point, we care way too much about the inputs to our black box of analysis and truthfully understand very little of what’s going on in incredible complex systems. Taleb also points us at another user-centred design bear pit: the narrative fallacy. We construct user journeys, use cases and flows in narratives that serve to over emphasise what we think we know and bring with them all the confirmation bias of author and reader combined. How often do we still read that it’s important we design brilliant experiences that delight? You’ll see testimonials plastered on the walls of Customer Experience Officers’ offices and headline grabbing responses from frontline staff going above and beyond, and yet research has shown for some time that exceeding some expectations does no more for loyalty than a comprehensive approach to meeting most of them. But it’s just such a nice story isn’t it?

I don’t believe that the way human-centred designers unquestionably use the tools our industry have been using for the last 20-odd years gets us to great solutions.

I believe we need, like Khaneman did, to take the lessons from Taleb and stir in even more psychology, evolutionary psychology.

The answers are in our past, our prehistoric past
I’ve found comfort in developing an approach based on two seminal statements on consumer behaviour: The late David Ogilvy’s famous quote questioning the value of market research: “people don’t think how they feel, they don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say.” and further Theodore Levitt’s “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole“. I would go one step further than Levitt and suggest that they want to hang that shelf that their spouse has been hassling them about so they can unlock a little more affection. Our modern age skulls house stone age minds and, as far as I’m concerned, a ludicrously overlooked truth is that we are a species that was for a very very long time motivated by procreation, the next meal and the next opportunity to rest. These basic needs of simple satisfaction surely form the basis of our the vast majority of our motivations and when we understood the roots of our behaviour we begin to unlock some truly creative solutions to our clients’ problems (there’s a reason everyone’s talking about Lagom and Hygge, simple satisfaction is incredibly human). We don’t get there by asking our customers this stuff, we get there only through anthropology and ethnography level observations: facial coding, eye tracking, galvanic skin response, neuromarketing. I’ve yet to see a CV where a UXr tells me they’re fascinated in anthropology or they’re fluent in FACS taxonomy, when I do I’ll hire them.

Research and analysis like this doesn’t come cheap and it doesn’t come quickly but tools like iMotions and IBM Watson have the potential to do for behaviour modelling what supercomputers have done for weather forecasting. Interpretation by inquisitive and analytical strategists that are comfortable asking ‘5 whys‘, doing field observations and contextual inquiries will guide us far better than fire hosing strategy and Ux teams with web analytics. To be clear, I am not dismissive of the role of usage data, I simply insist that it augments a broader collection of data gathered from IRL observations and a contextual understanding of human behaviour.

Bury the cliches
Henry Ford never said he didn’t listen to customers (I happily correct anyone who regurgitates the Faster Horse quote), Schiller never said Apple don’t do customer research (rather they do deep ethnographic studies and are ferociously tracking observed behaviour). I’m not saying we won’t learn from customer behaviour but rather, in order to get us to innovative, creative human experiences and behaviour change we must go beyond a facile and shallow observation of customer segments. We must build intelligent teams, use tools and encourage methodologies that give us the time to build upon the evolutionary roots of human behaviour and, whilst doing so, accept that our view extends no further than the horizon, we are powerless to know if it will snow next Christmas.

In a future post I will explain why I believe an automated approach to predicting and ‘optimising’ human behaviour through so-called personalisation offered by web platforms is not helpful at advancing our online experiences.

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The unreasonable consumer

On the 1st April Kara Pernice wrote a satirical piece on the NN/g blog calling on the user-centred design community to switch to creating difficult designs, for the benefit of humanity. I’m sure it was a jolly April Fool for the NN/g to post such an about-turn but in truth there is much we could do to reduce our obsession with making things easier for customers,  listening to their every whim and generally ignoring the realities of human existence in our pursuit of the utopian user experience.

I’ve written and spoken several times about intentional friction. It’s something I passionately believe in. From the smallest poke-a-yoke to the intentional deployment of dark patterns, there is a place for cognitive – even dexterity challenges – in user experience (see William Peng’s post on sign ups) and to deny them is to apply flat earth thinking to our behaviours.

The unreasonable consumer

As these things often do, later I read a great post by Rubuss’ Mark McArthur-Christie on LinkedIn where he mused about a customer service issue many of us have experienced, the customer that is beyond help and satisfaction. It inspired some additional thinking around how we might categorise these personas:

  • The naive dogmatist – a customer who is convinced that there is only one way things should be, often formed of a collection of misunderstood information: consumer rights, archaic business structures or some previously used process. Most likely to say “I know you can give me a discount”, “I know my statutory rights…”
  • The intransigent utopian – a customer that believes that businesses should operate at a loss in order to fulfil every customer whim. Indoctrinated with the mantra that the ‘customer is always right’ and will not yield as they insist that any problem or issue is fixed in their favour regardless of the cost or implications to the business or, for that matter, other customers. Most likely to say “I want to be compensated for my phone calls and be sent a brand new product tomorrow, personally by the Chairman”
  • The confrontationist – Generally spoiling for a fight and actually enjoys the process of battling with front line staff, progressively picking off more senior members of the team until they get to speak to the biggest boss whereupon they’ll continue to shout and begins to sound a little deflated and resentful when solutions are offered. Most likely to say “I’m going to be putting this all on Tripadvisor” and “I have sent my complaint to the chief executive and am waiting outside for them in my car”

 

In user centred design we have to believe that the user is, by definition, a sacred cow. I’d contend that, although the entire herd are not for the abattoir,  we should at least consider some tactical ignorance. In my second piece on the subject, I will be exploring what it really means to listen to users and not resort to the tropes bandied around by a lazy community of precocious experts.

The Trip 2017: where next?

We’ll be off again in 2017. We’ll be going SW it seems. Take a look at this post (and the summary of our October 2016 homage to The Trip).

The Trip: a 2016 homage

As the dust settles and the bright autumnal days descend into a more wintry gloaming, the only remedy is to start planning the sequel. It won’t be Italy, or Spain. As discussed in my earlier post, Italy is a less achievable facsimile. And Spain, the destination of the completed but un-aired third series, is entirely unknown.

It’s time to be brave. Original to a point but clearly derivative and domestic.

It’s an uncontroversial view to say that The Trip has a proven formula. Road trip + picturesque locations + fine restaurants and accommodation + a cultural (literary) thread. Surely that formula can be applied to any number of locations in the UK. It is not entirely subjective to say that the UK is blessed with beautiful landscapes, fine dining and a rich cultural narrative. It is perhaps also no coincidence to postulate that these things combine most happily in areas…

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Hipping Hall and The Angel at Hetton

It has been a feature of the hotels and accommodation up here that the central heating is cranked up to a level that would be banned as torture under the Geneva Convention. Still ravaged by sicknes…

Source: Hipping Hall and The Angel at Hetton

Holbeck Ghyll

and so we entered, met by a small man in a box room

Source: Holbeck Ghyll

Cartmel and Greta Hall

From now on The Trip gets a little truncated. I have never been good at maths but I know that six into four won’t go. Some divergence from canon is necessary. So today began at Bashall Eaves …

Source: Cartmel and Greta Hall

The Inn at Whitewell

With the best intentions of leaving at 40 minutes earlier, it will come of no surprise to any who know us well that we pulled away at 9.10am. Slipping with remarkable ease through the Surrey rush h…

Source: The Inn at Whitewell

The Trip: setting off

It’s not just me that writes stuff about me. Here’s my twin brother writing about something properly interesting that we’re doing next week.

The Trip: a 2016 homage

I suppose the idea began the first time I saw The Trip, inasmuch as it started from an idle thought  along the lines of “I’d like to do that one day”. The first time I saw it was on its first airing in the UK, on BBC2, back in the autumn of 2010. Life was different then. Two years before I had my first child, four years before my second. Another series has taken Steve and Rob to Italy (2014) and, as I write, they are on location filming the third series in northern Spain.

From time to time it came back to me. The movie version on a transatlantic plane in 2011. The second series broadcast in Spring 2014. Passing mentions in interviews, podcasts and articles. A Children In Need sketch. A lingering memory of a particular impression that cried out to be retold or shared on…

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Pound Cost Averaging: Why investors and investment houses should learn from runners.

 

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Make the most of the downhills in your investment strategy (Alexis Martín, Flickr)

 

Analogies can be hit and miss, but that doesn’t stop me from deploying them almost constantly in conversation. Because running is such a significant part of my life, there has been a tendency to see much of the work I do through the lens of physical activity and effort proves to be highly relatable in many service journeys.

Thanks to my one-time boss and good friend Darren, I was engaged in a conversation on Facebook recently pertaining to investments. With an undulating landscape of financial predictions, the chat was about how your unsophisticated public investor might make the right decisions about how much to invest and when.

Darren highlighted the strategy of Pound Cost Averaging, something I wasn’t aware of and which can be described thusly

The basic idea behind pound-cost averaging is straightforward; the term simply refers to investing money in equal amounts at regular intervals. One way to do this is with a lump sum that you’d prefer to invest gradually–for example, by taking £1,000 and investing £100 each month for 10 months. Or you can pound-cost average on an open-ended basis by investing, say, £100 out of your paycheque every month. The latter is the most common method; in fact, if you have a defined contribution pension plan, you’ve probably already been pound-cost averaging in this way.

Source: Morningstar

Now, that’s one way of essentially distributing an investment over time to spread the risk, prevent you getting carried away trying to read the market but keeping you ‘in the zone’ of investing when you might not feel like it.


Aside
There’s good evidence that it’s a very sensible strategy, albeit one that is not at the aggressive end of possible returns. Writing with refreshing candour in  The Spectator in November 2015 Louise Cooper highlighted how such a simple approach is a solid antidote to the lack of expertise that Fund Managers really have.


 

Now, what I’d like to see – and what interested me about Darren’s comments – was the potential to flex these regular contributions in line with the market’s movements. This is where the analogy really begins.

As a long-distance runner, the absolute best thing you can learn in an event like the marathon is pacing. You want to distribute the effort across the race and there’s some really good literature to support it. No course is completely flat and this means you have to modify the effort to match the gradient, you ease off a bit on the uphill and, within reason, make some benefit on the downhills. Using Heart Rate as a guide you might aim for a consistent effort of 165 BPM, keeping that constant on hills means dropping pace, on the downhills your heart is under less load so you can speed up a bit. Recently the website Flying Runner allowed you to create a minute-per-mile pace band that reflected the slight modifications you’d make throughout the race depending on the gradient or effort required.

Now consider investing, let’s say you want to invest £10,000 this year. You can trickle that out evenly across the year in £833.33 increments, assuming a flat market. But what if you wanted to follow the FTSE and say invest a little more when the market is on a downturn and invest a little less when it’s climbing? Doing so would make the most of the market movement but keep you within a framework that spreads the load.

There are issues with this approach of course: a period of consistent decline might over-stretch a finite investment pot, so if I put £850 in for the first 4 months of the year then I’ve used up more of my £10,000 but with no guarantee that I’ll make it up if the market doesn’t subsequently ascend. That’s a crucial difference. In the marathon, we know the profile and the distance of the course in advance and can plan how much to scrub off or add on to our pace with the gradients and the total distance predetermined. That said, this is a longer play than a marathon and a decade of investing this way is sure to see the amounts even out. The problem then becomes setting a monthly amount that you can afford: For example setting hard maximum investment and a hard minimum that is reviewed each year according to salary changes.

The second issue is fees and logistics. The sad truth is that nobody appears to be setup to allow the public to effortlessly invest in this manner. Often each investment incurs a commission thereby wiping out the gains if you’re making 12 of them per year. Additionally, no provider appears to offer automatic modifications that track the market gradient against your personal tolerances [happy to be corrected], although Share Centre certainly support a savvy customer doing it themselves. Evidently, there’s nothing to stop one doing it oneself with a spreadsheet and a diligent approach to calling in or going online to tweak the figures. Does this constitute a direct example of where Big Finance is theoretically working against customer behaviour by penalising us through regulatory-inflicted charges? Is it an example of an opportunity that could be exploited by FinTech, able to quickly build a front-end to an investment vehicle that is aligned to plausible customer behaviour? Well, until I can find a service to meet my desired approach I’ll just have to work on my own Google Spreadsheet and work towards the release of the first endurance-inspired investment strategy.  Given that the Brexit marathon starting pistol has just been fired, perhaps now is the time to, caveat emptor, give it a go?