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Customer and User Experience At The Root of Your Success

Customer and User Experience At The Root of Your Success

If you are running a startup before funding, you are no stranger to minimalism. You are used to make everything happen with minimal resources. Economy is one reason; you need to get far with minimal spendings. There lies also a bit of pride in minimalism, the feeling you get when you achieved a difficult goal with minimal effort.

Minimalism doesn’t only have positive momentum. Associated with doing the least minimum of the necessary, that momentum can quickly turn into a negative. The terms we prefer instead are “pragmatic”, “hands-on” or “getting things done”. Suddenly the whole thing has movement in it, implying that you get somewhere quickly.

The whole venture appears like a big adventure game: You are on a journey to figure out how to rise to become the leader of your kingdom. And along the way you pick up the skill sets and tools you need. It sounds like a lot of fun, because it is. In fact, for many entrepreneurs it is an addicting experience, one that comes with the danger of turning inspiration into motive.

Whatever gets us there

“Whatever gets us there” appears to be the untouchable mantra for almost all startups I have spoken to. To get the job done no matter what, like the heroes in old action movies, is such an attractive idea. It gives you the feeling of lightness, to shed off bulk and everything traditional, heavy, all that stuff that makes traditional corporations slow and inflexible.

With this mantra in mind, it seems logical to focus on building it, instead of spending a lot of time figuring things out. Unfortunately, when you know little about a subject you may have the beginners advantage of being free of bulk and bias, but you share the disadvantage of being new to it. Your intention may be not to be kept up with having to learn everything about a subject, but that is often what you end up with. Who wants to be kept up when your motivation is “whatever gets us there”?

The effect is that your startup turns amateurish without intention. Everything you do as a company you want to look and feel professional. But it’s all a big cheat, because “fake it till you make it” slipped in right after “whatever gets us there”.

In many cases this is quite okay. Everyone started small and it depends on how quickly you can learn, adapt and improve to pivot your direction in correlation to what you’ve learned. That’s a very vivid, crucial element for any startup, to stay agile and flexible. There are just certain areas where an amateur approach isn’t cutting it.

How do you know what’s important?

Being held up with things that “don’t matter” is such a powerful fear, startups tend to try to shake it off by ignoring most things and focussing on what is “really important”. Like the first build of your software. The server setup. The product’s functionality. Who would argue that these things aren’t important? Branding, marketing, all that can come later. So you spend not more than $50 on a logo and slap it on a business card. On the backside you list bullet points of your great product features.

The tension between things you think you really need and things you actually need has always been the source of the main struggle for startups. In an effort to get somewhere quickly, mistakes are made and they are ignored with a healthy dose of beginners naivety. You look ahead of the road and just keep going. When you fell, you just get up again and keep going.

Desperate to always know what is important and focussing on building the thing bears one big danger. It is most often overseen, and yet it is the one thing that can topple your entire venture. The effect that’s killing your startup has many faces. Often you run out of money. Or your investors became impatient and wanted your business to pivot before it became a business.

Or, the most common reason, you launch your product and no one wants it.

Make things people want (and don’t know yet)

Paul Graham is attributed with this quote: “Make things people want”. It seems so simple and logical. Why would anyone build and try to sell something people have no interest in? It would seem stupid to put energy in something if it hasn’t been proven to work.

Steve Jobs was attributed with the idea that sometimes you need to make things people don’t realise yet that they will want them. And Apple made not one, but a few good demonstrations of this idea. From its beginnings, in a world where everyone only seemed to be interested in what was already proven and what was known to work, Apple took big risks to make things no one initially wanted. Until they started using them.

Not everyone can afford to make something no one wants yet, but they will want once they start using it. Big companies actually have the resources for such experiments, and they do indeed spend millions (sometimes billions) on throwing products on the market just to see how they are doing. Google, now Alphabet, is known to always have a couple of such testing balloons in the air.

How to know what you don’t know yet

The idea to make something of which you don’t know if it will work seems so out there, like a crazy suicide mission plot in a movie. And yet it is this spirit of “we don’t know yet” that drives a lot of the curiosity in startups. When something is on the market and it has success, but no one really knows why, it is easy to flirt with this mystery in front of investors and say: you know, we don’t know exactly why this works, but who cares. We’ll just make sure it keeps going.

What is interesting is that, whether your product is something that people already want, or something people don’t know yet they’ll want it, makes no difference in the end. Because once they are in love with using the product, they won’t give it up again until something better comes along.

The factors why people want to use something are well known, and yet they are most often overseen by startups eager to do “whatever gets us there”.

It’s all about the experience.

This is not just a sign of our times, a trend, a marketing fad or a sales secret. It’s a factor that has always been the driver for anything humans ever used, from fire and the wheel to the bicycle and electricity. People always learned they wanted something after they began using and loving it.

The experience is everything

Let’s step back here for a moment. Startups want to do everything to get the product done and out there. As a startup founder, or engineer, you are convinced that your product has great features, enough for consumers or businesses to like it. But is that really cutting it? How do you know they will want to use it?

The one thing you should focus on the most, right from the start, before you build anything is the user experience. But how, you may ask, if you haven’t got a product yet, why is the user interface important?

This is at the heart of the most widespread misconception. The UX doesn’t start with a user interface. It doesn’t even start with using the final product. It begins with the idea of it. And not just the idea of the idea, but how that idea would work.

So how can you know how something works before you build it?

You look at comparable things and figure out what their disadvantages are. See, when Apple took risks to build things no one knew people actually wanted, they didn’t do it blindly. They had a pretty good idea of what people didn’t want anymore. Like clunky, hard to use phones. Or computers you needed to build first and feed with a programming language before you could even use them. From the very start, Apple always knew exactly what they were doing, because they had figured out what was wrong with existing solutions.

What triggers revolutions and makes products disruptive isn’t always a killer feature. It isn’t an array of advantages, like “it’s faster” or “easier to use”. The simple/easy factor is often mistaken as a product advantage. Anything can be made simple or easy. The question is how it can be that and still do a great job at its core function.

Easy and simple are ways how things work, they are not a feature.

Invest in learning and strategy

Here is what you can do to figure out what people want in future and to overcome founder’s bias: Hire a CX or UX consultant. Bring in knowledge from the outside, experience, the skill sets and tool sets you don’t have, to learn from customers, to learn from markets, to figure out the conclusions that will elevate your business and make your product stand out.

A CX and UX consultant’s job is to do nothing but that: bringing in intel and helping you to set your goals straight before you build the product. Of course no point is wrong to bring in CX and UX, but the longer you wait, the more you risk wasting resources and time in trying something and failing. And we all know that trial and error are part of the game, but still, there will be a lot of mistakes you wish you didn’t have to make.

The question whether you can afford a CX or UX consultant in an early stage of your product is coming from the wrong direction. The real question is: can you afford not to hire an expert in user behaviour and motivation?

As a consultant I have of course an interest to promote CX and UX consulting. However, I am not in this business because there is nothing else I could do. I had a great career in marketing and digital business, and I have looked into production, marketing, sales and distribution. I know a few things about business models (particularly intangible value models, such as services and online subscriptions). What interests me most today are companies and ventures that are trying to improve people’s lives. Those companies have an imminent need to benefit from learnings and strategic direction.

The things that are harder to do and new approaches are more fun for me, they present challenges and open questions about things worth finding out. It is a question of passion, not just of making an income. So I wouldn’t give you this advice if I didn’t genuinely believe in it:

Invest in learning and strategy before and while you are building your product. It will become the root of your product’s success.

Why Do We Need a CX or UX Consultant?

Why Do We Need a CX or UX Consultant?

(CX stands for Customer Experience, UX stands for User Experience.)

In the startup world, a lot of things are important. But there is only one thing that really matters: moving forward and be successful.

You have an idea, a vision and a goal, and you want to materialise everything you have envisioned. You need money and resources, and you need to build your product or service to show how it works. And while you may know how to build something, you may quickly discover you know little of all the other stuff: how to market it, how to distribute it, how to attract customers to buy your product.

You want to convince investors you have figured these things out, so whilst writing this brick of a 50 slides investor’s deck (always unsuccessfully aiming to cut it down to 10), you are trying to come up with answers for all open questions.

As it turns out, every question related to sales, demand, market, distribution networks, is tied to one question to rule them all:

What is it that makes people want our product?

The Founder’s Bias

Being a startup founder makes you prone to a subjective view. It is only natural, inevitable really, and it is called the founder’s bias.

You need a lot of energy to get started, to virtually lift this plane off the ground, and in order to do that you need to convince yourself you can make it all happen. To make sure you keep going you need to believe that anything is possible, and there is nothing you can’t learn. You started coding, maybe you are a successful engineer, or you figured out something that is a real need, something people are missing from their lives. All those things help you to convince yourself you know what you are doing, helping you to fight off your biggest fear: that what you put all your energy into might not be working out in the end.

You need to convince yourself you know what people want. The problem is, most people don’t know what they are missing from their lives before they started using it. So how could you know?

Build it and they will come

One of the most misguiding and yet most persistent concepts around is that because something exists (and you believe it is awesome), it is going to attract customers. If it really does something people need, the thinking goes, people will want to have it.

A number of factors need to be set right to make that happen. Your product needs to be solid, it has to deliver on its promise. You also need a lot of exposure, so people will find your product and start using it. This will generate the traction you were telling your investors about: installation base and returning customers.

Returning customers? Here is where the rubber hits the road.

These are customers who fell in love with your product or service. They come back, because your product did more than what they expected it to do. They feel really comfortable using it. This effect of immediate and longterm reward is well known in psychology, it is basically the reason why we do anything at all. It is the reason why nature invented sex. Desire and rewarding emotional experiences made sure we would procreate.

Okay, I know all this, you may say. You are well aware that you can’t (and even shouldn’t) do everything yourself. But you can still make sure it is an awesome product. With the right marketing, you will get the exposure you need to attract customers. And once they figure out how awesome your thing is, they will surely want to use it again. Right?

The customer relationship

Google for customer relationship management, or CRM, and you will find hundreds of software solutions. They all promise to simplify your life and help you manage databases of customer information. The implication is, if you collect customer information and track your communication, it will generate leads, which translates into sales. This principle is treated as a holy cow in sales, regarded fundamentally true on all levels between business to customer and business to business models. If you look closer though, you understand that just by tracking customers and collecting their information alone, you won’t generate any sales. And cold calls or sending them bribing gifts is the marketing of the past, they won’t buy your product friends.

What all these solutions can’t promise is what you were hoping for: returning customers. They can’t promise it, because it’s not depending on the ease of use of managing databases, or reduced introductory pricing. It depends on one thing only: the experience.

Whether a customer likes an experience or not is somewhat related to the product delivering it’s core function. There are millions of products out there, many of them excellent at what they do. But the vast majority are hard or unpleasant to use. Even if a product is fairly simple, there may be other parts of the whole experience chain that are putting customers off, and without looking at these factors you may never know what they are.

See, the rubber hits the road not on a singular tangent, but across the entire chain of the experience as a whole. Every bit that contributes to the experiences people have with your service or product shapes their impression, form their opinion and leave them with satisfaction or frustration. Still, reducing the experience chain to one shade of grey—it’s either frustrating or satisfying—is too simplifying. Products may aim to be simple, but humans are way more complex.

Service Design, Customer Experience, User Experience

Humans don’t live in an isolated, egocentric world. The person you spend most time with in your life is yourself, but that inner identity and your outwards identity are strongly influenced by experiences you make—with everything and everyone. It is this context that shapes our personalities, that makes us grow, learn, forget and stay away from certain things. All together, our decisions are more driven by intuition than by logical thinking, as much as we’d like to believe the contrary.

Service Design, Customer Experience and User Experience are three areas that are related, but they address slightly different needs for product/service development. They are not just about creation, but often about improvement of something that is going on, the thing that stands between a product or service and the people who are using those things.

These three areas are lying in the intersection between behaviour research, emotion, social and cultural concepts, psychology, analysing drivers, intent, motivation, and they are looking to connect the dots of why people are doing what they’re doing. The starting points for User Experience Design and Service Design are quite similar: both areas process how people are using things, which is bound to the concepts people have in their minds.

These are things you can’t address by just building it. You can’t start with wireframes of user interfaces, and then try figuring out the rest along the way. It is counterproductive, like starting with the painting and then figuring out the subject. This discovery-like creation process is a luxury you may be allowed as an artist, but it is not an economically sound move that will support to sell your product or service, when time, resources and energy are limited.

Before you build it

As a startup founder, or a head of engineering, or even as a UI or product designer, you may think you have all you need to figure these things out on your own. And you know what? Many of us do. It’s not that you are totally detached from people who aren’t nerds. We all have our mums and girlfriends to ask what they are thinking of our product. But this approach still defines the subject after the painting and it requires abstraction and imagination from people to become you, to see the product as you see it.

System engineering has a powerful driver at the heart of all development, which gave birth to many successful startups and is the core element for agile, or the lean product development movement. It is the “just make it systemic and build in iterations from there” approach that helped many great products come to existence.

This approach is getting you far, but it fails at one particular area, because the most systemic approach cannot replace it: strategic thinking.

Anyone can have an idea, but not everyone is capable to pull it off, because it requires strategic thinking and tactical manoeuvring to get you somewhere. It takes much more than a hands-on approach in system engineering. You know how to build something so it does a particular thing, but you can’t know if that works for common users, because people’s lives are indifferent and they are tied into context, concepts and thinking patterns way outside our own nerdy cloud.

Use Cases and User Journeys in User Experience are not coming out of thin air. They are based on an understanding of customer behaviour. In Service Design you have Customer Safaris to gather information, by accompanying customers and finding the pleasure and pain spots they experience with a service or product. These processes are shaped to adapt to your own environment, so there is no single UX process, or one right way to do things.

Naturally, when you build something and want to test it, you need to wait until you have a complete experience chain to really understand all influencing factors. Putting a static interface under someone’s nose and asking them: “what do you think?” really doesn’t give you much you couldn’t figure out yourself.

Learning, vision, strategy

Most startup founders and engineers I have been talking to in the last two years were looking for UX designers, or UI designers, in some cases they wanted UX/UI designers with HTML5 and JavaScript under their belt, designers who had actually built Android, Chrome, or X-Code apps themselves. They wanted hybrids, people who know a little bit of a lot of things. Because that is more bang for the buck, or so they thought.

A good consultant is someone who brings along a lot of experience and knowledge, stuff they picked up along the way when they were working out solutions with engineers and designers. CX and UX consultants are a different breed than Graphic and UI designers, because they see the interface as a bridge rather than the thing that triggers other things. User interfaces of apps plays a strong role in the experience chain. But it is a human who interacting with the app.

What do we need to know to overcome founder’s bias, a “getting things done” constraint and move to a higher level of understanding, a level that enables us to more effectively handle all things involved in creating a product?

We need to know more about people and what they are thinking. A consultant helps you understand people’s psychology, either through direct research (in cases we know little about) or through accumulated knowledge (in cases where comparisons can be made). We need to understand where people are coming from, and why they can identify with some things and other things are alien concepts to them.

We need to gain knowledge beyond basic data, or assumptions about consumer patterns. Most parents love their children and want them to go to good schools. No one likes coming late to work. Everyone prefers fresh produce. These are common knowledge facts, they are data points, but they are not interesting.

What is interesting is why people care about those things. Parents want a successful future for their children, because they want them to be happy. Employees want to be punctual to increase career chances. Customers prefer fresh produce so they can keep it in the fridge for longer.

To learn about these things we need not only data points and assumptions, but we need to ask the right questions. What we need is a platform of learning, that helps us to develop a vision and a strategy.

This is where a CX or UX consultant comes in. Analysis and conclusion is our brick and mortar. And data is admittedly helpful in this process, but all the data or cluster graphs in the world can’t help if we cannot connect them with people’s motivation.

You need a lot of great intuition and empathic ability, to grasp the hidden fears, discover potential wishes and explore imminent needs people have. Some things people are open about, other things you can’t put your finger on, they would never admit it, and yet these things may play an important role in their decision patterns.

Overcoming bias

It is incredibly easy to get biased with any bit of information you can get. We tend to believe what we want to believe. If you have a super cool tech product that can do something no other product in the world can do, or at least not as well, you are convinced that what you have is revolutionary. Even better: everyone you ask, you fellow engineers, your friends, your boyfriend, everyone confirms to you what you want to hear: It’s the greatest thing ever.

There is a certain threshold, an area between the moment a product or service hits a market, when it is picked up, it gets initial traction and then it keeps growing. This triangle is in steady motion, and if you are doing things right, it keeps spinning forward: people discover your thing, they start using it, they like it and they keep returning to use it again. And if they continue to form good impressions with these experiences, they will start telling their family, their friends and people they just met about it. They will say things like: “I never looked back”, or “Best decision I ever made”. You know—those customer statements you’d like to see at the bottom of your homepage.

Connecting the dots

A CX or UX consultant will walk you through the process of connecting the dots. Going through customer expectations by looking at behaviour, comparing other products, existing solutions on the market, and figuring out why they work or don’t work, as well as developing a strategic vision and figuring out what requirements are needed for UX design and user interfaces to make these things happen, that is the job of a consultant.

Is it worth to invest in CX or UX consulting?

It’s a bit like in those movie scenes when the good guys are escaping from the bad guys and they find a helicopter standing in front of the building. “Can you fly a helicopter?” one guy asks as the machine is taking off in seconds.

In reality, you often think you can fly a helicopter, but in the case of customer experience and user experience you can’t. In such a situation it really helps to have a pilot.

You Are Going To Like Me

You Are Going To Like Me

Maybe you have heard of Ping. I know, it uses the same name “Hop” first used. Media describe Ping as “incredibly simple” and “mysterious”. Maybe those words came from the originating company, Secrets Inc., which also makes Secret. No surprise there.

I installed and tried it out. This is what I see as the next generation of apps. Why?

It is UI by storytelling. It is guiding the user through the experience the same way we were guided by the hands of grown ups when we were two years old children. Not top-down, not condescending, not forcing a new system onto you. But providing one hand, one door knob, one key, curtain or rabbit hole to see what’s next. And as we move forward, we learn, and the app learns from us.

What happens in background, the input-data driven algorithm, stays in the background. The app talks to me as if it was a person. The same way like we were talked to as little children, it begins at the most intimate level of trust: I am here to help you.

I find this the most impressive achievement of this new app. It shows incredible talent, not in programming, but in achieving an experience, so pure and straight forward, it finds no comparison to any other app I have seen.

(Photo: Alex, Flickr)

Update

After a day of using Ping I have to say, it’s simpler than I thought. If there actually is an algorithm working in the background, it is not working very well. Apparently it just pushes anything in a channel I selected, with no filtering at all. I will keep using it for a while to figure out more about how it works.

Join The Core UX Diigo Group

Join The Core UX Diigo Group

It has been a while since I talked about Diigo. One of the first and best Web bookmarking services, Delicious, was first bought by Yahoo!, then mismanaged, and finally sold to the YouTube founders. In 2010 I was looking for a solid replacement. It was a similar story like with Google Reader, it just happened a few years earlier.

Delicious was a great, simple tool that helped me to collect all findings on the Web in one database. It had some sharing options too, mostly people following your Delicious stream, but it wasn’t very modern or comprehensive. In the early days, around 2007 to 2009, Delicious always looked a little bit like Craigslist: crude and not well designed.

Diigo does all of this better. Its usability is well thought out and the service has been now around for long enough for me to say I can recommend it to anyone who is looking for a solid tool to store bookmarks, to highlight and collect information. This is already great for study, to do research and write papers. But one of Diigo’s best and probably most underestimated features is Groups. This is a powerful way to create a digest of findings, which are subscribed to like a newsletter. Breaking out of the old “these are my bookmarks” scheme, Diigo Groups allows you to create topic-based digests of information, to which its members can contribute. This has the potential to become a knowledge base, much along the lines of what I wanted to do in 2009 with Cloudleaves.

You can join the Core UX Diigo Group if you apply for it on Diigo. If you want to be sure you are being accepted in the group, just an email address does not cut it. You should have valuable bookmarks in your own Diigo profile too and you should be willing to actively participate and contribute to the group. An additional email explaining your intentions does not hurt, but it’s not obligatory. The goal is to create a small compendium of knowledge in a field that is rapidly growing and changing.

I am looking forward to new group members and to your all contributions!