The Business Side Effect of UX

7 Oct

We’ve come to a point where pretty much every single business process from the most complex data analytics to the most pedestrian expense report is touched by technology.  As a result there is an increasing number of opportunities for UX practitioners to get involved at the business level of enterprises and help make their tools more convivial and usable.

The interesting twist is that in the process of developing UX with business stakeholders, we often find ourselves in the position of questioning the very business processes that we were simply called to make more usable through better user interfaces. The assumption made by business at the outset, was that these processes were founded in sound logic and therefore it is just a question of developing the right “flow” on the screen.

What ends up happening instead, is that the practice of developing UX shines a sort of a design-thinking black light on the business process itself and reveals inefficiencies that might have gone unnoticed otherwise. The simple act of thinking the process from a UX perspective helps take that process through yet another efficiency filter.

What if UX practioners became the business logic architects of the future? What if it all came down to a visual sketching tool, that seamlessy scales up to a full fledged business application?

Customer Experience Nirvana

30 Mar


Historically speaking, marketing and UX have been either somewhat at odds or simply unconcerned with each other. At the risk of oversimplifying, it might be said that marketing is generally concerned with things like new customer acquisition, reach and frequency, and producing stickiness. UX practitioners, on the other hand, have been concerned with things like adoptability, usability, and transparency. But the separation of marketing and UX is in the process of changing.

Marketing organizations are beginning to shift their focus to include a new emphasis on customer experience (CX) as they realize that reach and frequency strategies are not working as they used to. Simply said, in order to be effective these days, marketing needs to be in the business of helping consumers and adapting to customer needs while also executing smart outreach strategies. Talking to prospects with the right message at the right time and the right place (as good marketers have always known to do) is just not enough anymore. Marketing now needs to offer prospects or customers smart and dynamic tools that help them in their decision-making.

As Dave Stubbs of Teehan+Lax has written, “In the past we were incentivized to create ads and microsites that would launch onto the Internet, exist for a while and then disappear. In the future, we will create programs and ‘things’ that solve consumer problems…” Vidya Drego of Forrester Research has also written a great paper on the topic.

With all of this in mind, it’s important to examine how UX and marketing can collaborate to build the next generation of customer engagement.

From a marketing perspective, a whole lot of a company’s customer interactions are staked in digital touchpoints. This makes it important that UX professionals be recruited to help shape customer interaction models from the very outset of product development, rather than brought in as an after-thought after a product is built to try, too late, to make it more user friendly. Through its user-centric approach, UX is especially well suited to help marketing shape a more comprehensive and brand-cohesive view of their prospect and customer interactions.

From a UX perspective, branding is an increasingly important consideration these days. This is a result of both the growing digital bandwidth and the fact that new experiences focused on persuasion or selling are now integrated into the digital tools themselves. Think mobile apps and tools like the Nike+ runner application or Ozarka‘s water delivery website. As a result, the UX perspective has broadened to include new types of experiences that are less process-driven and more advertising-driven. UX designers must contend with more messaging that increases cognitive load, and they must work in an area that’s typically been the bastion of marketing communications.

One way to describe this shift is that the interests of marketing and UX are merging into a new approach to customer relations. That outlook is pretty exciting. So many customer experiences will improve when marketing and UX get together to craft tools that give consumers the power to shape more mutually beneficial relationships with the brands, products, and services they choose.

But for this collaboration to be effective, a third ingredient is required: IT. And that’s where things threaten to unravel. What good does it do if marketing and UX can put their heads together to design exemplary customer experiences only to find out they cannot be implemented? This isn’t due to problems inherent to IT, but more because of the problematic dynamics of marketing and IT’s relationship. In a nutshell, marketing (as well as UX, although to a lesser extent) have been guilty of tech phobia. But to be fair, IT has given marketing and UX plenty of good reasons to distrust technology.

Some of us are familiar with the historic battles between interaction design’s and engineers’ implementation plans. Well thought-out designs have been thrown out because the software platform “can’t do that.” Marketing has had similar struggles with IT when trying to gather dynamic customer data or automate its processes. IT has been so overburdened with support and maintenance that being asked to implement new features is more than they can handle, especially if those new features could present a threat to their systems’ stability.

Scott Brinker of Ion Interactive expands on this issue in his blog post, Why IT and marketing are diametrically opposed.

On the bright side, increasing numbers of a new breed of technologists are joining the ranks in IT departments. These new technologists arrive in IT already knowledgeable about CX and marketing. They come from much more flexible programming environments, and have evolved through the age of the Internet and open-source platforms. They understand the importance of the customer experience, and are very engaged with it once they know they’re involved in a meaningful customer experience effort. In fact, some of these technologists have actually been the originators of better UX in organizations where marketing had only paid lip service to the issue.

The other positive angle to consider—and really this is where everything hinges—is if marketing is able to successfully collaborate with UX, they will acquire the vision and experience they need to help them generate and own the clear and executable types of technology plans that are key to success.

So, to wrap up:

  1. Marketing needs to start integrating UX design processes into a holistic view of digital (and beyond) customer interactions.
  2. UX practitioners need to acquire a better understanding of marketing’s priorities and brand management practices.
  3. Once allied into a potent force, marketing and UX can engage in the kind of research that leads to the development of clear and executable technology plans and, as a result, engage IT as an enthusiastic partner.

Marketing Going Mental

20 Oct

When I first encountered the term Mental Model, I was really intrigued. Not entirely sure what it referred to, I imagined the use of Mental Models as a way to figure out how to design great tools. Lo and behold, this is exactly what Mental Models — when applied to the disciplines of UX or interaction design — are all about. Ha! They’re about figuring out what storyboard, work-flow, sign, symbol, pattern or interface behavior best represents the desired action in the mind of the user. And so this eventually led me to another thought: Could Mental Models be applied to Persuasion Architecture. For those of you not familiar with the term, this is the online marketing discipline also referred to as Post-Click Marketing or Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO). Which I personally like to consider subsets of the larger discipline of User Experience Design.

Going Mental

Going mental is fun!

So back to Mental Models. The origins of the term can be found in 1940’s psychology:

“A mental model is a kind of internal symbol or representation of external reality, hypothesized to play a major role in cognition, reasoning and decision-making. Kenneth Craik suggested in 1943 that the mind constructs “small-scale models” of reality that it uses to anticipate events.”

The term is really attractive because it paints a clear picture of what we are talking about when addressing the persuasion aspect of marketing. For all the talk about emotional branding and how to tap into the reptilian (fight or flight) brain, is just that, talk. There is really no scientific way to predict how a particular group or even an individual will respond to specific messaging with scientific certainty. It’s just not possible. If it was out there, we would all know about it and all ad agencies and their creative teams would be out of work. And that would be a sad thing. Because I believe the pursuit of the next great creative idea that helps propel a brand or product is one of the reasons that makes this business so exciting.

On the other hand, mental models present a much more manageable and realistic approach to crafting persuasive media in the digital age. Instead of solely focusing on “trigger” messaging, we will spend more time focused on creating enjoyable and informative experiences that best fit the mental model of our participants (I’m purposely using the term participant instead of audience). Where emotional branding used to reign supreme, we’re seeing a shift toward a new paradigm, we might define as mental model business mapping. When you think of how consumers’ participation has exponentially increased thanks to the Internet and social media, it makes sense to see that the somewhat manipulative (or at least perceived to be as such) aspect of emotional branding will not be tolerated in its traditional form. Using the example of Michelin tires; receiving the brand message of “there’s so much riding on my tires” while showing me a picture of a baby is going to take a back seat (pun intended) to my ability to evaluate my tire needs, depending on my vehicle and other factors using a really cool online application. That doesn’t mean the baby message disappears. Actually it would probably be a good thing for it to somehow weave itself into the online experience (given the proper participants likely to identify with the message). But it is definitely in the background of a more important function that helps me decide which tires I need.

This is where marketing is really entering the domain of product development. We are talking about digital products (or tools) designed to help customers. Mental models are more important in this type of environment than demographic or psychographic information. With mental models we go straight to the practical nitty gritty of what keeps the ball moving. And that’s what I believe makes the study of Mental Models or Mental Model Mapping really interesting for crafting persuasive architecture in digital media. The ability to connect with users through a better understanding of how their understanding works fits the more transparent model of Web 2.0 communications. People are less likely to appreciate being tugged at and will prefer being gently pulled through experiences they find enjoyable and easy to use while providing them decision-making information.

We’ve entered the age where your customers have been given control of the conversation. Trying to persuade them with clever messages just doesn’t work anymore. They trust what they hear from others on social media much more than anything you can say. But they will appreciate tools that help them in their decision-making. Especially when these tools are transparent and fit their mental model. Think of the Progressive Insurance website that allows you to compare rates with other insurers. How well that website is designed to fit specific mental models will determine how well it converts visitors into customers.

When it eventually all clicks for the customer thanks to presenting them tools they appreciate because these tools/digital products/websites (whatever you want to call them) fit their mental model. You have some “mental magic” happening. Not only are they pleased and become loyal customers, they also often become brand advocates and evangelize on your behalf through social media. Which brings the topic of properly weaving social media interaction into mental model mapping. But that’s a whole other post. Stay tuned…

A great reference book on Mental Model applications to digital media:
Indi Young’s Mental Models.

We’re All Eagles…

31 Aug

… or fostering teams for the Experiential Mindset.

Continued from Experience Driven Marketing

team spirit

Eagle Team Spirit

The thought of crafting the customer experience as a continuum from brand communication touchpoints, to marketing to actual product experience is not something the digital age invented. This has always been the hallmark of great brands that know how to take care of their customers.

The differences in the digital age are:

  • How fast we can go from customer feedback to new product iterations and how fast customers expect these changes to occur
  • The exponential growth of complexity and multiplicity of touchpoints with customers (internal and external)
  • The level of customization and attention expected by individual customers

From my experience and looking at the last 10 years of evolution in Branding and Advertising, Product Design, User Experience Development, Interaction Design, Software Development, Persuasion Architecture and Online Marketing (including the emergence of social media) — there clearly is increasing momentum for a comprehensive practice and advocation of the Customer Experience. A holistic approach where practitioners of all of the aforementioned disciplines (and others I’ve left out) more closely collaborate.

This deeper level of collaboration between all these disciplines is what eventually I believe develops into the Experiential Mindset. Only if all these folks are brought to the table as eagles… I mean equals, instead of the old  strategy>creative>production>execution pyramidal organizational model, do we really have a customer-centric experiential organization.

To use a concrete example, an interaction designer will see something the brand creatives have devised that will undermine the usability in such a way that the entire brand experience ends up suffering. In an Experiential Mindset organization, the ID would be able to intervene earlier in the process and help the creatives come up with a better solution. This seems perfectly common-sensical [sic] when down on paper, but I can’t keep count of the number of times this simple process has been ignored in the best of organizations.

Another example comes from the media planning and social media angle. People engaged at that level need to be able to have more influence on the earlier stages of the creative process as well.

How does an organization truly allow all these disciplines to influence strategy, rather than line them up in a production “assembly line” model?

The best approach is to create processes that demand such participation. Meaning, all of the responsible parties need to sign off on early briefs and architectural models. If not, your organization won’t do much more than pay lip service to the Experiential Mindset and continue to practice what it’s used to doing. There needs to be a deep process change that will affect a lot of the commonly accepted hierarchies. Not an easy task. In addition there needs to be sub-processes that allow for much faster adaptability once a program is launched. This is where brand frameworks may come into play. (More on that to come in an other post…)

Experiences do not happen as separate events tagging along an otherwise “strong” brand. They are the brand and they are in constant state of flux and as such deserve the extra attention required from many more angles than used to be. Otherwise there is no “strong” brand. So, in order to build the next great brands, let’s all team up and be eagles! … equals, that is…

Experience Driven Marketing

18 Aug

I recently read a thought provoking post on Teehan+Lax’s company blog called “Adaptive Marketing”. It is a well written and inspiring piece around the shifting role of marketing with the advent of brand/consumer social interaction. The post and its comments brought this thought to mind:

Marketing must be in the business of helping customers or be relegated to the sidelines.

Marketing cannot rely on outreach efforts and advertising alone anymore. No longer do we depend on brands to tell us how great their products are and leave it at that. We have access to reviews and friends on social media that perform that job much better than brands do. They do it better because of a simple factor: Trust. I trust what another person says about a product or service much more than whatever the official brand message might tell me. This phenomenon has actually come to form much more malleable brand experiences for consumers. Because of that shift, the attitudes and perception trends tend to evolve a lot faster than they used to. It’s not that third party opinions were not around before. It’s just that our access to volumes of information and the speed of response from go-to-market to reviews and product development has accelerated exponentially.

So what does it mean for marketing to be in the business of helping customers?

IMHO, and simply put, marketing needs to create tools that help consumers make better choices about the products and services they’re considering, help them customize these products and services to their exact needs and further empower them to influence the next evolution or iteration of these same products and services.

For that to work, marketing must increasingly be involved with the experiential aspect of brand communication rather than the messaging. And marketing and product development must be more closely related. The issue is that this is difficult to deliver in a marketing organization whose culture is primarily one of 18-month linear reach and frequency planning cycles and all the process rigidity that implies.

But let’s assume our organization has let go of the shackles of set-in-stone strategy and is ready to adopt an Adaptive Marketing model. Then what? How can we make that marketing model where programs (not epic campaigns but simple highly responsive programs) continuously evolve and adapt in a highly volatile space with very little time for making a connection. It’s become increasingly clear that the challenge is equally creative as it is one of technological fluency. If the problem revolved strictly around technology, then every brand with a Facebook page would have millions of fans constantly engaging with them.

The one area of differentiation that brands will increasingly need to foster is how they relate on an emotional level with their customers. And that is first and foremost a creative problem. However, it can no longer be handled solely through clever advertising. Inventing new ways to connect and new forms of engagement as a process rather than an event is what creates breakthroughs. This practice is really what can be referred to as Experience Driven Marketing. At many levels, this is what we’ve been involved in digital media for years. Interactive media in many ways has forced us to consider the customer experience in ways that weren’t possible before and has created the possibility for meaningful tools (or experiences) that actually bring added value to the brand/customer relationship. It’s a two way street.

One seminal example of that approach to marketing is the Nike+ Apple marketing/product program. The digital experience (the website and its integrated social and route mapping services), and the product experience (shoe sensor and iPod, iPhone app) all came together to form an entirely new and evolving relationship with customers. Instead of trying new reach and frequency approaches to selling more running shoes, Nike adopted the approach of helping their customers get more out of their running experience, which in turn helped Nike develop other iterations of the tool to adapt to customers’ needs. But the idea of trying to sell shoes as the focus of the program is gone, it has become a “byproduct” of the customer experience.

This approach doesn’t have to be the sole domain of big consumer brands. The same principle applies to a B2B environment. When an industrial manufacturer opens up their design templates and lets customers figure out their needs with an interactive visualization tool on their website. And subsequently lets customers suggest modifications to the tool itself, they are doing exactly the same thing.

The goal is to focus on the experience as a holistic practice that spans the entire customer life cycle. Not just something that happens after a purchase.

More to come on the Experiential Mindset in my next post. Stay tuned…

Less is Less. More is More.

4 Aug

For the past fifteen years or so, or ever since the first online ad banner appeared, the predominant approach has been to liken online banners to billboards on a highway. The “less is more” approach has been to make them catchy and quick to read as if we’re spending our time in front of a computer the same way we do when barreling down the highway, with very little time to give attention to anything but the road (or what we might be texting on our phones… Just kidding here, or am I…)  To be fair, as “Internet savvy” marketers, we knew there weren’t many alternatives to making an announcement on someone else’s website. Lest we started cramming a bunch of information on a tiny 196 x 60 pixel rectangle or used the interruptive spam tactics (too numerous to list here) that the Canadian pharmacists and incredibly cheap mortgage bankers seem to favor. But I couldn’t resist adding my personal favorite example right here.

Loud and catchy

I smell the click-throughs!

We all agree that digital media is exemplifying the principles of permission marketing more than any other form of communication and we seem to be resigned to the fact that consumers will just not put up with any advertising, period. And since they control the conversation, there isn’t much to do. Could this spell the death of advertising as it has been announced by our best prophets eons ago? It could, unless advertising changes radically as to what exactly it offers consumers.

So back to our online ad banner. Just from observing my own behavior, an ad banner being nimble and non-interruptive yet bright and catchy in its messaging does not make it any more conducive to me clicking through. At best it might make it more noticeable on my screen. That’s good if you’re tracking old-fashioned eyeballs, or impressions as we say in the digital world. (But didn’t we all agree that interactive media would give us so much more to measure.) And then no matter how elegant the banner is, it always seems to take away from the website’s experience.  Beyond that, an ad banner can be considered an eyesore that consumers just tune out. With advertisers having no way of knowing how many potential customers they have turned off. Now that was a marketer’s worst nightmare last time I checked.

To follow the thought above, ad banners are going to need to evolve into something more discreet yet with much more value for consumers if we want to keep using them.

The problem is not how to make banners less, but it is really how to make them more.

With current technology we can make ad banners so much more than a simplistic and sometimes obnoxious call to click through. We can let ad banners be a window into the product or services we’re selling, and we can do it without forcing them upon consumers’ screens. I’m talking about the expanding banners most of us have experienced, except with so much more than a zoomed-in view of the initial message with larger type call to click through. We also need to more clearly let consumers decide whether or not they want to interact and expand the banner to unveil what’s behind the curtain so-to-speak. Not sneak up on them as some mouse-over expanding banners do. Further down that path, we can develop banners that capture information and as a result let them evolve according to users’ preferences.

To use an example. Let’s assume we create an expanding banner that shows all aspects of a new car. The banner starts off as a clever yet discreet teaser in a corner so as to minimize interference with the website. When clicked (not moused over as that would be potentially interruptive in case of an accidental hover) it unfolds to reveal a menu of choices. From performance and technology info, to the exterior and interior design and features, it would even include some video, perhaps an interactive experience to make a point about a specific benefit. After some use the banner would start registering what most users are interested in seeing in that car (implicit preferences). The next iteration of the banner would then offer more in-depth content for that specific area and perhaps even change the focus when starting off. And all of that interactivity would be dynamic, not ever involving any additional programming. Better yet, the banner would also gather qualitative feedback and gather that information in a database (explicit preferences). It would incorporate a dealer inventory request form with a zipcode search without ever having to send the consumer off to a separate website. Now how about that for a meaningful customer experience. That’s where more is more.

A live example of that approach is the remarkable new iAd platform for the iPhone and iPod. Not surprisingly, the Apple folks have figured out what consumers really want. Now, why would that be? Oh, yes, that’s because they’re the guys who fought all the big labels and gave the people what they wanted. Namely iTunes. Now they’re taking on the Ad Networks. But I realize that’s a whole other discussion. So I’ll leave it at that. Thanks and stay tuned. And remember, less is less and more is more.

Last Night a D.J. Saved My… Website.

27 Jul

Music is often overlooked as a means to generate engagement on a website. That’s because it has been a technical hurdle to effectively weave music into a web experience. The lack of continuity between web pages means the music gets abruptly interupted when the user clicks to another page. Which tends to kill the grooving mojo… In addition, music generally needs more time to load, thus not always playing on “cue”. These challenges and other technical limitations have meant that music is more often reserved for musical beds and backgrounds on rich media microsites and other brand immersion websites.

hands-on music

Beyond the technical hurdle, there is also a rights acquisition issue that is a disparager for a more widespread use of quality music. For sure, you can get “royalty-free music” on one of these canned libraries, but the quality is akin to elevator music and at that stage, you probably are better off with no music at all. On the other hand, there are some high quality production music libraries but their prices are high and their licensing terms often require a PHD in cryptography to decipher.

It is an unfortunate situation as I believe music is one of the strongest emotional vehicles. What if, when visiting an online retailer, I approach an “add to cart” or “checkout” button with my cursor, and an evocative sound or music comes on to softly validate or even persuade me to carry on with the intended action. Or what if each color change on a product selector came with its own sonic mood, thus adding another emotional dimension to my color choice…

If you think this is far-fetched, all you need to do is to think of one of those memorable dates and what role the musical background played that day or night? Music can give us wings when we would otherwise just walk, it’s what conjures up the deepest emotions and our connectedness with everything that lives and vibrates. So why not use music as an additional persuasive element of the experience?

There is an experiential quality question as well. As mentioned above music has been very much part of many brand immersion rich media and video websites (and TV/radio commercials of course) for some time now, as a means to enhance the targeted brand communication objective. But what about the more mundane (yet brand holistic) experience of shopping online? Think of the world of brick-and-mortar retailers and the musical ambiances they use in their stores. Only this time, it would be interactive and tailored to the user’s experience, providing numerous benefits that would translate into longer times spent on websites, more engagement and ultimately more conversions. And with websites that encapsulate more content within the same page, thanks to new page coding technology (i.e. Ajax), the music would not get interrupted so often.

There is a production music library out there that offers quality, easy to license, royalty-free music especially well suited for interactive use. There aren’t many of those. The loops are surprisingly un-repetitive. Actually it is so good, it sounds like custom scored music, and because they have created thematic collections (called theme suites), you can dress up an entire production with music that sounds consistent across multiple moods, just as if it had been custom composed for your user experience.

The site is:

Next time you’re considering adding a soundtrack to your experience, check it out. You can preview CDs and tracks in their entirety right on the website (albeit at a lower sound resolution). The royalty-free (buyout) model makes it very cost effective for smaller web projects as you can purchase and download the music you need one track at a time.

… there’s not a problem that I can’t fix, cause I can do it in the mix… dub time.