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The power of folklore

The power of folklore
"They" say the site structure doesn't work. "They" say the sales process is confusing. "They" say 19.5% of customers would rather browse online and buy over the phone. The question is: who are "they"?

Every business has its own folklore. These are the stories that build up over time to become accepted truth and which influence decision making in subtle ways. Over time they become stronger as they are repeated and further examples found that serve as additional proof. They're used to justify points of view, to explain why projects failed or succeeded, and occasionally become so strong that entire political empires are built around them.

From a design perspective they become highly influential. They can guide the direction of the design, placing undue emphasis on solving particular problems that are trapped in corporate memory, regardless of what the data might say. The challenge from the design perspective is uncovering the truth behind the folklore and positioning it in a way that doesn't undermine the story so completely that the business rejects whatever solution is being designed.

I start by trying to understand the history of the story, identifying where it started and how it evolved. This is important because it allows me to strip away the embellishments that have built up over time and either take them to one side to be dealt with separately or discard them. Quite often I've found complaints logs and Internal Audit or consulting reports are good places to focus as these are often where the event that prompted the story is codified and gains focus. For example, one business that I worked with was convinced it had a very specific customer experience problem because several customers had raised it and the CEO had become involved. My review exposed "several customers" to be the same customer who had simply written to different senior managers over a period of months and a serious issue was shown to be a trivial one.

Once I understand the core of the story I can start working with it. If the story still has merit then it can be dealt with as any other hypothesis: construct an experiment to test whether it is valid and work accordingly. Some care is required, however, as the business may want to explicitly test whether this one story is still a legitimate one, resulting in a self fulfilling prophecy. This is particularly likely where the story has been used repeatedly to justify political action. Having demonstrated to my client their "several customers" was one and agreeing to at least validate whether there was a legitimate concern, I incorporated a means of testing it into a wider customer satisfaction exercise. However, one of the managers involved felt slighted and added a poorly thought out closed question to the end of call flows. He returned to the table armed with a report that had looked for a problem, found it and was now happy to proclaim he'd been "right all along".

Whether it's held to be true or not it is important to demonstrate to the client how the story has been dealt with and gain buy-in. Beliefs are difficult to undo with pure reason, so the design has to be sold in a way that reassures everyone the problem has been dealt with. Without this there is a risk that the folklore will return later in the project, resulting in rework at best, failure at worst.

With the "several customers" problem my initial approach was to reposition the original story as an example of the importance of tracking customer complaints accurately, then use a single demonstration as a point to high-light how the core problem had been solved. When the additional data came back it would've been easy to discount it or simply say, "yes, we've done that". Instead I spent an hour with the manager concerned going back through the design to make sure his "new" concerns were addressed and made a couple of minor tweaks to content. It was time well spent as he had the political power to scupper the project.

Sometimes with User Experience Design it is easy to get caught up in the numbers, the facts and the research. Ignoring or discounting the organisational beliefs, the folklore that has sprung up around events long forgotten and discounting the political power these stories can have is a dangerous path to take. Whilst they shouldn't be a distraction, often finding the grain of truth buried inside them can help gain buy-in to the project and even expose problems that the organisation needs to deal with elsewhere.

How do you tackle a project?

How do you tackle a project?
"How do you tackle a project?" is a question I get asked on a regular basis. I could document my process as a formal presentation and set it out here as "The Way" I work, only the reality is more nuanced than that. Over the past twenty-odd years I've amassed a huge collection of tools, techniques and approaches to solving difficult problems, designing multi-channel solutions and winning the hearts and minds of stakeholders.

Instead I created a small project that I documented as a case study. It'll step you through from the initial brief, through requirements capture and idea formation into a working prototype (and yes, you get to play with it). Of course each project is different, but you'll get an idea of the general approach I take.

Beware the growth hacking case study

Beware the growth hacking case study
Since its inception, Tinder has become a central case study on pricing. Their pricing policy has been dissected and analysed to the point every detail is clearly understood and practical how-to tips are widely available for entrepreneurs to learn from or borrow. Only there is a fundamental problem with Tinder's policy of charging older people more to use its service: in the European Union it might be illegal.

Many of the case studies of US firms that I've seen floating past my various feeds have elements that in a European context might require heavy modification to be practical or may even be inaccessible for regulatory or cultural reasons. And yet I've also encountered EU based entrepreneurs who have lapped these examples up and asked me how to implement them. It's a worrying precedent that risks seeing European startups fail simply because regulators decide to shut them down. For example, one startup that approached me was facing closure after a UK regulator had told them to stop using a critical, cloud based supplier because they were in breach of EU Data Protection laws.

While regulation and legislation is a complex and murky world best travelled by lawyers there are four common themes that I see in US centric case studies that we Europeans need to be mindful of.

A/B testing.

A lot of case studies high-light the importance of A/B testing (and other variations), which I fully endorse. However, the design of these tests needs to be carefully considered so it doesn't fall foul of anti-discrimination regulation. This is particularly important where aspects such as price and features could be flexed to target specific ages, genders and religious or sexual orientations. EU legislation expects a 44 year old straight atheist male to be able to buy the same product with the same features at the same price as a 23 year old lesbian Catholic.

What this doesn't mean is you have to market your new product to everyone in a bland, one-size-fits-all ways. A/B testing of marketing messages, advertising locations and even which features you emphasise to what audience is still applicable, provided you don't discriminate when it comes to providing the product. There is nothing wrong with offering a 10 percent discount to the readers of a magazine specifically targeted at women, but there is if you refuse to give the same discount to a male reader who happens to have found it.

Targeted marketing.

From cold calling to SMS blasts to auto-subscribing people onto mailing lists, various tactics have been recommended on the pages of US centric case studies that might prove problematic in the EU. Our data protection laws are designed to prevent unwanted messages reaching citizens, often by requiring an explicit "opt-in" to receive such targeted marketing. There are also various statutory lists that are maintained where citizens can register their details as a sign to the economy that they do not want to receive unsolicited marketing, and which must be checked before a campaign is started.

Some of the detail buried within case studies might also prove problematic if not tackled in the right way. Shopping cart abandonment messages (emails sent to prospective customers who don't complete the sales process) could be seen as unsolicited marketing if presented in one way, service messages that don't require opt-in consent if presented in another. Automatically subscribing customers to newsletters is another common theme; yet it may fall foul of EU rules if the citizen hasn't first been given the opportunity to opt-out.

App sprawl.

Cool new tools to optimise marketing or improve personalisation are often promoted in case studies, complete with links and free trials. Keen to keep costs down, entrepreneurs can find these compelling and eagerly sign up without fully understand the potential consequences to them and their customers. The situation is made worse by the explosion in cloud based services where data and apps can be based anywhere in the world and presented through an EU friendly domain name.

EU based businesses must ensure personal data is managed in accordance with data protection regulation. Included in this is a requirement that data is not sent, processed or stored outside the EU unless certain conditions are met, conditions which are often not met by non-EU startups. It is essential that before signing up to a service promoted in a case study a thorough check of how the service manages data is made.

Consumer protection.

Customer service case studies have become increasingly common and can be a good source of learning. They need to be read, however, with an understanding that consumer protection is much stronger in the EU and there are specific regulatory requirements on companies to act in particular ways before, during and after a sale is made. This can include specific information that has to be provided, particular rights around warranties and guarantees or what happens if the customer complains. This can constrain the way you apply a customer service best practice, or even make it impractical.

Of course the pressure is on the entrepreneur to start the money rolling in and then drive their business into profit. Case studies are a great way of short-cutting some of the learning that needs to happen, as well as sources of ideas that you can apply to your own company. However, when you start to think about how to apply the lessons to your own business you must consider the regulatory environment you operate in and understand what bits you can - and must not - apply. Without this care you risk inadvertently exposing your business to accusations of discrimination, of mishandling personal data or trampling across a citizen's rights.

Is your contact strategy fit for purpose?

Is your contact strategy fit for purpose?
A list of process steps and the email messages that will be sent at each is not a contact strategy: it is just a list. Yet this is exactly the approach I see time and again when it comes to defining the contact strategy for multi-channel customer experience designs. The strategy element vanishes from view and in its place comes the endless Excel spreadsheets and arguments about HTML or plain text and whether to include a link or not.

For me a contact strategy is just that - a plan to meet a defined set of objectives for both proactive and reactive communication. It is a document that explains how our approach to contact will support the overriding business objectives and support customers at key moments in their relationship with us. It may have a list of potential touch points, but each will clearly expressed in terms of the channels employed, the objectives behind the communication, the messages for each persona in each channel. More importantly it will have overarching design principles that set out how each channel will be used, the structure of messaging and where it is (and is not) appropriate to include specific types of data.

Building a contact strategy is an integral component of the customer experience design. Whilst operational process design may inform some of the contact points, it should be the CX that drives the contact strategy forward. To do anything else will result in a bland, one size fits all approach that misses far more targets than it hits and risks overloading the customer with inappropriate messaging (or not communicating the right things).

One business I worked with had gone down the "produce a list in Excel" and had found itself facing significant costs from inbound calls. My review showed the business had failed to appreciate the three different business systems it used all sent different styles of messages from different eMail addresses with vastly different messaging and formats. The result was some messages were being flagged as spam, others were confusing. By removing the responsibility for contact from these different systems, centralising it and applying a consistent set of design principles inbound calls fell as confidence in these new messages increased.

Which raises another important issue: inbound contact. Often the focus is on us telling the customer something, but they will want to contact us too. Inbound strategies need to consider questions such as whether there will be a concierge approach (where someone assesses the customer needs and passes it off to specialists) or one-touch resolution, how the business will confirm the person on the phone or eMail is who they say they are and so on.

My approach to the contact strategy is to treat it as an integral part of the customer experience design. In my experience that produces a more consistent, robust and effective strategy.

Client complaining about too many workshops? Time to think of a different approach.

Client complaining about too many workshops? Time to think of a different approach.
Workshops have become the "go-to" solution for many designers. They're seen as highly effective ways of generating and validating ideas with clients and building consensus around proposed solutions. Yet they are also expensive to run, tying up hours of management time, difficult to schedule and easily derailed by the demands of "business as usual" by those who are less committed to the cause. Add in a weak facilitator and poor preparation and it is little wonder that I've heard sponsors openly question what they're paying their agency for.

Rather than reach for the workshop as the first port of call, I've increasingly backed away from them, only employing workshops where absolutely necessary and acceptable. There are a variety of alternative approaches that can be brought into place that are less demanding on management time, albeit they trade the comfort factor for the client with overall effectiveness and speed. Adopting these approaches as part of an integrated approach to design has, in my experience, made it far easier to schedule single, longer workshops and build strong stakeholder buy-in over several weeks.

One-on-one meetings.

Meeting with people singularly might seem ineffective as you risk repeating the same one hour interview over and over again. Yet meeting someone for a private conversation can bring out issues few are willing to discuss in public, as well as start the all-too-important process of building confidence in you as a member of the team. These sessions can take any form, and while I will sometimes use a formal interview approach with pre-prepared questions, I am equally as likely to bring pads, post-it notes and marker pens.

Pros: Easier to schedule. Private conversations can be more open and builds trust.

Cons: Can find yourself repeating the same session over and over.


There are times when you need more than one person's insight into a particular challenge. If this is the case I'll arrange a "pair meeting", a mini-workshop that lasts 40 minutes. Set up with a clear agenda, a singular focus and with two (sometimes three) people who have direct experience of the problem area, the aim is to quickly work through the specific issue and devise a broad solution that can be refined further.

Pros: Easier to schedule. Encourages co-creation and buy-in.

Cons: Demands tight facilitation and a strong focus, so limited scope.

Team meetings.

When stakeholders are within a similar reporting line or peer group becoming an agenda item on their regular team meetings can help. Asking for a five minute slot to provide a quick overview of where the project is, how you solved the last challenge and the one you're facing now builds trust and commitment. When I've been invited into team meetings to do this in the past I've found it incredibly easy to get otherwise busy managers to agree to give me some time to walk through a solution thanks to a mix of peer pressure and, sometimes, being pointed at the person who can actually provide the answers I need.

Pros: Shows the project is something that everyone needs to take account of. Creates peer pressure.

Cons: Limited time available. Peer pressure can be seen as "unbecoming".


Far fewer times than I would like I've had a room dedicated to my projects where I've been able to put charts, wireframes, process flows and everything else that's related up on the walls. By employing an "open door" policy I've frequently found myself debating particular points in the customer journey with clients who happened to be passing by or who responded to an invitation for a "cup of coffee and a chat". On one notable occasion my client became so passionate about resolving a particular blockage that he arranged an impromptu meeting by calling people into the office and walking through the experience from end-to-end. We cleared it in under thirty minutes.

Pros: Encourages informal collaboration and buy-in.

Cons: Demands a "war room". Engagement can be "hit and miss".

Print, draw, scan, repeat.

Particularly useful with international teams, one technique I've found effective is to send a copy of the wireframe or process flow to team members and have them print it out, draw their comments and remarks on it, scan it and send it back. I've then used their comments to refine the flows and repeated the process. One Spanish team I did this with went through six iterations in three days to agree a new sales process that had full commitment as they could see how I was incorporating their concerns and suggestions throughout.

Pros: Low time overhead as it can be fitted in between work. Good technique for virtual and international teams.

Cons: Can be slow if multiple iterations are required.

Internal workshops.

Sometimes there is nothing else that can be done but run a workshop, even if the client doesn't attend. Generally this is a high-risk strategy as it can be easy to start creating solutions that the client will ultimately reject (whether for legitimate reasons or they feel as if "it's being done to them" rather than with them). This can be mitigated by involving the client's "product owner", by using a business analyst as a proxy for the client or limiting the scope of the workshop to avoid over extending yourself.

Pros: Helps the team to gel and builds consensus internally. Presents client with clear decisions.

Cons: Risk of client rejecting the outcomes. Limited client buy-in can result in "the agency is doing it to us" mentality.

Use technology.

Numerous technology solutions exist that allow you to share work with clients and have them comment or vote on ideas. The biggest issue I've found with this approach is it can't be relied on. Busy people will no more contribute to a project hosted on a clever technology than they'll commit to a multi-day workshop. I've rarely used them and when I have it has been largely to maintain an online record of what's happening rather than rely on them for co-creation.

Pros: Low time overhead is possible depending on solution. Greater convenience and everything is recorded.

Cons: Easy to be forgotten. Still requires effort to keep momentum and buy-in.

When you start planning your next project and the rumbles of discontent come from the client about your workshop schedule consider alternatives. Adopting a less intensive way to creating solutions might not be the most efficient approach for the project, but it might be the best for the client.

How to find data when your marketing analytics is not working

You're working in the marketing department of a business that refuses to invest in any kind of analytics. In fact they're so stuck in the past they're refusing to even collect personal data. The question is: what do you do?

This situation was presented in the Growth Hackers forum. The obvious answer might to be find another job, but having been in similar situations myself (trying to find answers to questions when the data seemed elusive) I stepped up to the mark. What follows is my slightly lighthearted take on the problem, how to tackle it and the positive way it could play out for you career:

Somewhere there’s probably a log file that’s recorded what page someone looked at, what called the page, the TCP/IP address of the person who did it and a few other bits and bobs. This is likely controlled by someone with a number of pens in their top pocket and likes to surround their speeches with curly brackets and finish each sentence with a semi-colon; 

Find this person, become their friend and see if you can get your hands on this elusive data.

With a bit of grunt work you should (stress “should”) be able to pull out some basic trends if nothing else. Using the tcp/ip address as a proxy for a visitor you may be able to see returns, where people are coming from, possibly even traffic through your site.

Bring this data into the light of day and do some analytics on it. Postulate a hypothesis or two and see if you can link a couple of targeted marketing campaigns to results (perhaps by setting up a specific landing page that you promote and monitor). 

Once you’ve done this present it to the powers that be and present it as a masterpiece of analytics and sell the increased returns the business could see if only they’d do the job properly.

This exercise is pure win-win:

if you get permission to invest you’ve won the battle, so go away and make hay;

if you don’t get permission you’ve got a fantastic piece of work on your CV and a great story to tell about why you’re going to leave.

I filled your form in already...

I filled your form in already...
I know I shouldn't mock and that this site has a few "quirks" and people in glass houses etc.


...when a company selling marketing automation software can't get a basic landing page right I reach for Grab and capture a screenshot.

There's a few things wrong with this. First, I arrived at this page after receiving a personalised eMail as part of my subscription, so I question why I need to enter the same data (again) they've asked me for several times before. But here's the kicker...

Above the fold, and bear in mind I've been enticed to click on a link setting out what sits behind this page, all that's visible is the big image and the data entry form. Annoying, but I'll live with it. I typed in my details and hit the submit button and nothing happened. I reloaded the page. I entered my data again and still nothing. It was only when I screen grabbed the page using my favourite extension that I realised there were two forms and the error message was out of sight.

Not only that, but the forms weren't linked properly, so completing one of the forms still failed the validation.

This only underlines what I've said countless times before: test the damned thing before you set it live. Test it twice if you're dependent upon it to build credibility with actual or potential customers. And then do it all over again.

Stay silent or issue a receipt? Which is the best retention strategy for a subscription model?

Stay silent or issue a receipt? Which is the best retention strategy for a subscription model?
If your business model is based around subscriptions what's best for retention? Send out a monthly invoice with a reminder of the great things that customers have purchased or keep silent? It's a question that was posed on the Growth Hackers forum and one that I come across on a fairly regular basis.
From a pure retention perspective NOT sending out a monthly communication is better. Users who disengage from the product gradually over time will “forget” the regular payment and won’t pay too much attention to it UNLESS they actively manage their credit cards. Effectively they give you money and you save money on not having to provide the service they’re notionally paying for.
However, from a customer experience perspective this is a pretty poor way to go and in some regions is culturally unacceptable and can even be illegal.
Within the Payment Protection Insurance market this was a common tactic, with many business cases were based on customers passively paying a premium each month they either forgot about or weren’t entirely aware of. End result was when the customer “woke up” (as in they realised they’d been paying a monthly premium for a couple of years and seen no value or heard nothing from the insurer) complaints came in thick and fast. Having to write to customers on this programme was known as “disturbing the book” and resulted in high cancellation and complaint rates.
The most balanced approach I've come across thus far is from Naked Wines in the UK. If you’re subscribed to their “Angel” service, which means handing over twenty pounds a month, and are inactive for a period of time they re-engage. They remind you a monthly payment is being made, that there is a credit on the account and encourage you to take action. That action could be buy another case or it could be cancel your account, both options are presented and in a way that acts more as a reminder from a concerned business than as a hard sell.
For me this questions is one of engagement. If the customer is engaged with your business and interacting regularly then a monthly "receipt" may not be required. If they drop off the radar and continue to pay without accessing the service then action to re-engage with them, even if the outcome is a lost customer and revenue, is essential.

Staying silent and hope they won't notice is, to me at least, unethical at best and deceptive at worst. Not an ideal way to build relationships with customers.

Very British Problems: a good example of winning new fans

My new favourite T-shirt comes from Very British Problems and it isn't just because it appeals to my self-deprecating sense of humour.

Along with said t-shirt came the following handwritten note and a small packet of sweets. Not much, I know, but enough to make me smile and bookmark them in preparedness for my next t-shirt.

So thanks for making me smile for all the right reasons.

Could suppliers undermine your disruptive startup?

A client I was working with had big hopes for its disruptive business model. As so often with these things, their aim was to tackle issues around speed and ease of use that plagued their target industry. It would all be done online and through the intelligent application of technology.

If only things were that easy.

A critical supplier had requirements that derailed this lofty aim. They were stuck in the past, requiring paper documents with wet signatures and loading up delays that would take their application process from a few minutes to a couple of weeks.

This happens all too often with digital businesses. Disruption and innovation are blocked by suppliers who have no desire to support it. For a true leap in experience the suppliers also need to innovate, yet as long as their traditional market is in place they have no need. If they are large enough they can effectively lock out innovation by placing their own internal processes in the way.

Of course this does open the door to new entrants or for smaller suppliers to step up. My client was able to source what they needed from an unexpected quarter, freeing this major blockage and setting them back on course to launch a major disruption.

If you're encountering difficulties with potential suppliers that can't (or won't) support your business plan there are a few options available to you:
  • rerun your supplier selection with a widened net. Although there is an inherent risk in choosing less established players, working with smaller businesses often creates flexibility as they're more willing to work for the business and less rigid in their approaches. However, you must be aware a greater level of due diligence is essential to ensure you don't chase one that's going to fail on you;

  • change your plans. Sometimes when you're locked into a relationship or the choices are limited it can be frustrating. Rather than dwell on this a more sensible approach is to adjust plans and reschedule aspects of the business roadmap to accommodate the constraint. Being able to demonstrate your business is a success is a powerful way to bring new, more flexible suppliers into the open;

  • go it alone. If practical you could elect to build your own version of whatever it is that you need. However, this can be costly, time consuming and distracting. One firm I worked with spent so much time and effort building a seamless multichannel contact centre to fit its exact needs that the core product was poorly defined and ultimately failed.

While you might like to think you're calling the shots with your new business you must be mindful of the realities of dealing with suppliers. Take care in selecting them, be mindful they carry considerable power and if you need to adjust your plans do so quickly and with your eyes still focused on the long game.

Do your user experience personas have the right focus?

Do your user experience personas have the right focus?
Personas have become the fundamental building blocks for user experience design. They're used to help guide decision making, ensuring the entire design - from the high level strategy to individual details in services and websites - is consistently delivering what the customer expects and what the business wants to achieve. Unfortunately it is all too easy to cram so much information into them that they lose focus and become unusable and even counter productive.

During my years working in user and customer experience design I've encountered four dominant themes that drive persona development. The most effective persona sets have chosen one of these as a dominant focus, using it to drive a design that is aligned with the core business objectives. Around this core are elements from the other themes, cherry picked to add more colour and context without distraction.

Financial Focus

Useful for companies who are explicitly driven by financial targets (such as increasing revenues or profits), a financially focused persona aims to target customer groups whose spending levels and patterns align with company objectives. In its most simple form personas are created by looking at factors such as "wallet share", spending levels, frequency of spend, profitability and purchase volume.

Demographic Focus

Some businesses are driven by the demographics of their customers and should align their personas accordingly. Understanding customer groupings by age, gender, profession, location and so on can be useful for financial services businesses whose products are often tailored around demographic data.

Behavioural Focus

Where there is a strong "lifestyle" brand the behaviour of the customer should be the focus. These personas attempt to describe the customer in more "esoteric" terms, often considering their life objectives, how they want to be perceived by peers and their expectations from the companies they do business with.

Functional Focus

Typically encountered in B2B companies, there are sectors where the emphasis is on the functionality that the customer wishes to access, in which case a functional focus is appropriate. This can either break down the business's offerings into functional blocks that are then distributed logically amongst personas, or align with the job function that the persona relates to.

While personas should have a dominant theme that aligns with the strategic objectives of the business, it is important that elements of all four find their way into the design. This creates a more rounded persona that is easier to relate to and design for. It is important to retain the core focus though, so careful cherry picking of factors from other elements is required. When I design personas from core themes I will generally have a robust description for the core with a more flexible outer that allows some scope for interpretation and debate. For example, a function oriented persona set may have clear descriptions for roles and responsibilities that each occupies, while other elements may be couched in vague terms (such as being described as middle aged rather than aged 35-50).

Personas are essential to effective customer experience design and should be aligned with the objectives of the business. A dominant theme in their design is likely to emerge from this approach, although as a designer you should always be checking to ensure other elements of the wider themes make their way into your designs and decision making.
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Recommended reading

The Customer Experience: charting the new battleground in business
Corporate Manager or Lean Startup CEO? How to balance being both
Gamification in Financial Services: how to make long lasting changes to customer behaviour
Case Study: Creating a customer experience in B2B lending
Designing for B2B? Make sure you cover these in your customer experience design
Are you sure your MVP is ready to release to customers?