Customer driven innovation

People talk about innovation but how do you make it happen? How do you engage your customers in the process; how do you rapidly move beyond ideas on the whiteboard to actually implementing them; how do you introduce tests and learn to continuously improve, or provide comfort in failing fast?

Combining agile software development and design thinking, it is possible to go from concept to cash at speed, placing the customer at the heart of the process.

This presentation that I have recently given at an Ovum symposium and the Shaw Innovation Mashup introduces some of these ideas and practical ways of making customer-driven innovation happen.

Buck the trend

“Mary Queen of Shops”.  Mary Portas gets rave reviews, helping small, struggling retailers find their feet again.  She is very successful and her formula makes for good TV.  I’ve only seen the one programme, a couple of weeks ago where she was invited to help a bakery in Raynes Park; a place I know well having gone to school just round the corner.  The owner, Angela, was stuck in the past, selling white bread and iced cakes from the seventies.  It seemed she beleived that Mary would revamp the interior design of her shop not overhaul her whole product set.  The editing didn’t help her, she came accross as a rude and throroughly unpleasent woman.  If her business goes up the wall, serves her right.

Yet reading reviews in the run up to the programme made me reflect on this judgement.  What was being proscribed was formulaic and too be expected.  Focus upon specialty breads go for the chattering middle class market, bring Borough Market and its bread stalls to the Raynes Park suburban semis.  The reviews reveal that actually the bakery is well thought of in the community.

Maher bakery is simply one of the great family establishments in South West London. It’s run by the delightful Angela,who is an example to all of us. Long may it be serve and entertain its happy customers for another 36 years!!…….

There is a market for something other than what the current trend dictates.  There is clearly a demand for the experience that the Maher bakery offers.  Speciality breads are the easy answer, not necessarily the right answer.

The fact that it is old fashioned, the egg and bacon baps are the best in SW anywhere and the friendly atmosphere are exactly the reasons why it is so popular and always busy on Saturday mornings…says we who have been coming for more than 15 years.

It reminds me of the working with retail banks in the dot com era, predictions of the death of branch banking and the closure of the high street banks.  My colleagues poured scorn on me when I tried to defend the branch bank (something I had direct experience of, having spent time working in them); other than the poor and elderly (who  were not profitable to the bank), why maintain a costly, dated branch network?  Times change and branch banking is becoming fashionable again.   Nat West have just launched a new campaign with 14 committments to “becoming Britains most helpful bank”.  Commitment Number one is to “open more branches on Saturdays and extend the opening hours in [their] busiest branches” and they aim to “support the communities in which [they] live and work”.  That is what high street banks used to do.  Until someone like Mary Queen of Shops persuaded them to get on board the new cargo cult.  And now the new banking innovation is to throw all that cargo cult thinking away and take inspiration from the past.

Sometimes innovation is bucking the trend.  Like the Raynes Park bakery that does what it has always done; do it well, and continuously exceed your customer expectations.

Usability and the $1 trillion mistake

Is this a case of fat fingers, a usability flaw or poor design that enabled a Citigroup trader to have placed an order to sell $16 billion, instead of $16 million? P&G shares plunged by 23% because of this individual erroneous trade. What followed was the algorithms kicked in and automated trading saw the Dow loose a tenth of its value in less than half an hour. (And Accenture dropped to 4 cents down from $42!)

Before we go blaming human error, questions should be asked why that error occurred. How can someone make such a simple mistake so easily? Was it a case of entering two many 0s? (Don’t stop to look or think, answer the question as soon as you’ve read it – how many zeros are there in this number? 160000000. Same thing again, how many zeros are in this number 12,000,000. That’s a bit easier isn’t it. Only an ‘N’ separates the B from the M on a qwerty keyboard, in a hurry, easily mistaken?)

I’d start by looking at human factors and experience design, and question why (assumption here) the IT team who implemented the system didn’t have before a UX designer on the team to think about the human factors. Could this be the most costly example of poor design?

Article: Big drop, was it all a mistake?

Don’t blue-tack the walls

Story wall picture

Agile is messy.  It is untidy; it clutters desks and dirties the walls.  Progress is not hidden in spreadsheets and gant charts in Microsoft Project.  No, it is on the wall.

Walls are central to agile.  Indeed any visual thinking process that uses ‘information radiators’ as central to communicating information (rather than circulating documents) will make use of walls, sticking cards, posters, post-its, stuff up for all to see.  When you start to use walls, good things happen.  Other people become curious, they walk to wall, they look and see.  When you have wireframes stuck to the walls they go arrrr!  that’s what you are building! There is a palpable excitement, a buzz to organisations who start (and continue) to use walls.

That is, until the detractors come along with demands to tear down the wall.

These usally take one of three guises.

The first, predominantly found in financial services is compliance.  Increasingly clear desk policies are being rigorously policed to ensure documents are not leaked between departments and this often finds its way onto the information radiators.

The second is facilities management who seem to think that their clean whitewashed walls are delivering greater value to the business than anything untidy that is stuck on them. Their knee-jerk reaction is to ban the use of blue-tack and get a whiteboard permanently drilled to the wall to hold the cards.

The third and final detractor is the IT manager who is dazzled by technology and insists on using technology to solve the problem.  Out goes the card wall and in comes a plasma screen with an excel spreadsheet displaying the cards.  This completely misses the point of the wall, of the human element.  Richard Durnall tells the story of his experience at Ford where they employed a technology based process for managing inventory at the plant.  “Unfortunately this process had a problem; it was rubbish.”  He contrasts this tech-centric system for that employed by Toyota:

When the guy on the line started a new box of parts, he’d take a card off the top and put it into a letterbox. Every 10 minutes or so another guy would drive around in a little truck and collect up all the cards. He’d then go to an office where he had a card sorter connected to a computer. He’d put the cards through the sorter, which at the same time sent messages on usage to the supplier network, and then he’d go and fill up his truck based on the cards that he had, returning the cards to the boxes.

Managing inventory with cards.  Using paper in a paperless office; not everybody gets it.

Knowing that you will have detractors to the paper walls is a first step in managing expectations and getting everybody on board.  Talk to compliance, facilities, and let them know what you are doing.  Ensure an executive sponsor can override any petty bureaucratic blockers.

And before you know it, the information radiators will have moved out of IT and into the way the business manages its tasks as well.

Hey usability dude, join the devs (Usability rant part 3)

The last couple of posts here and here have been critical of boutique usability companies that offer user testing services. In the final part of my rant, here’s an alternative approach.  Seed into the development teams someone with a usability background (probably with a psychology degree), someone who can create as well as critique.  Align them to Marketing (or ‘the business’) but physically locate them in IT.  To be successful they must be a passionate advocate for the business vision (hence business alignment), but unless they have a daily relationship with the developers (on hand to support immediate design decisions) they will fail.  (The only way to do this is for them to be part of the development team, same building, same floor, same location).

It is better than they Eschew the formal usability testing process for more informal guerilla usability testing.  In an agile project treat this as akin to the showcase.  Testing sketches and wireframes prior to the development iteration, and putting working software when it has sufficient UI coherence in front of users and well as business stakeholders, with the developers as observers in the process.  One person can cover multiple workstreams.  This is a far better use of a limited budget than commissioning ad-hoc reports too late in the day.

Usability reports (usability rant part 2)

Following on from yesterdays post about the usability process, today I’ll focus on the deliverables, the usability report and my contention that they are rarely grounded in any understanding of the project reality. Here are a couple of examples of usability findings from a (well respected) usability company’s report:

Finding: It was said that the ability to filter [the search results] would be important.
Recommendation: Add check boxes so the customer can choose between [result types]

“Add check boxes”.

That’s easy to say, three words “Add. Check. Boxes”. But what if the particular search engine the team are using does not allow such functionality?  Or such functionality will take significant effort to build.

Finding: When probed about the use of breadcrumbs on the site, 2 participants were confused by the structure that was displayed.
Recommendation: Consider using chevrons [for the breadcrumb] to better covey to the customer that these words show the journey they have been on [rather than ‘/’]

Let’s leave aside the basis of this recommendation; two participants commenting that they weren’t sure about the use of the ‘/’ (this sounds more like it is reinforcing the authors prejudice against the use of / in a breadcrumb and their preference for the ‘>’ symbol).  And let’s also leave aside the fact that it has taken three weeks to let the development team to know that.

It is presented on a powerpoint slide with a screen shot of the breadcrumb and a mockup of a preferred solution, e.g. “Home > UK > South East > News” (Rather than Home / UK / South East / News”).  I’d estimate this took twenty minutes elapsed time to produce this slide. It will take a further ten minutes to discuss when the page is presented to the product owner. And the product owner will spend ten minutes explaining it to the IT project manager who will take ten minutes to explain it to the developers to make the change…

Save your money

Usability testing is not a science. Investing in one or two formal usability tests is almost certainly money badly spent. The Cue reports give a good insight into this.  For example, they asked seventeen experienced professional teams to independently evaluate the usability of the website for the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York.

The teams reported 340 different usability issues. Only nine of these issues were reported by more than half of the teams, while 205 issues (60%) were uniquely reported, that is, no two teams reported the same issue. Sixty-one of the 205 uniquely reported issues were classified as serious or critical problems.

They go on to state…

The study also shows that there was no practical difference between the results obtained from usability testing and expert reviews for the issues identified.

This suggests getting a UI expert into the project team is probably money better spent than employing the usability company (and supports my assertion that usability testing is often just validating the work of a professional).  And when you do get a usability company to report back, as I’ve discussed above, don’t hold your breath for the quality or usefulness of the results:

They found that only 17% of comments in usability reports contained recommendations that were both useful and usable, and many recommendations were not usable at all [source]

So if the recommendations you get from one company are likely to be different to the recommendations from another; if the report is going to be full of recommendations that are impractical and not implementable; if an expert can pick up usability problems that usability testing can, why bother with the usability company testing at the back end of the project?  Indeed, why bother with the usability company at all?  Get an interaction designer on the project from the outset (call them an information architect, user centred designer ,UX person if you want), get them testing ideas and interfaces informally and regularly throughout, and truly embed usability into the project itself, not as an add-on process and report.

Usability rant part 3>

Critiquing the critics (usability rant part 1)

Michael Winner may be a good food critic, but if you were looking for someone to cook you the finest meal for your budget, I doubt he would be your first choice.Same with film critics, they may be able to write an insightful and critical review, but would you want them directing a film for your budget? Would you want Jakob Neilsen, who is essentially a usability critic, to design your website? I mean, take a look at his site!

When you are building a product, you get a usability company in because you know that usability is a good thing that you want to have. If usability companies are the critics, what are you expecting?

The first usability test I ran was in 1991. I’ve set up usability labs, I’ve observed hundreds of people interacting with technology and products. My passion has always to do things at speed, turn around results ASAP and engage all stakeholders in the process.  But I’ll talk about that in a later post.  For now I’ll draw on experience of working with organisations that have commissioned usability companies to review their products.  I’ll breakdown the process I have often observed from usability testing vendors, considering both the elapsed time and the actual ‘value added time’ taken.

Day one

The client (usually the business) engage the usability company to audit the usability of the product that is being developed. The consultants will come in and understand the user tasks, roles and goals; the target audience will be identified for recruitment. ‘Value added time’ = 1 hour.

Day two

The team go away and produce a test plan and a recruitment brief for a research agency to find participants. They promise to get it back to the client in a couple of days. They contact their preferred agency who set about recruiting people (let’s assume this is a simple brief for a retail website targeted at young mothers).  Produce test plan (value added time = 3 hours). Send to client for review.

Day three

Client return test plan with a few comments. Update test plan. Value added time = 30 minutes.

Days six-ten

Twelve usability sessions, each an hour long, they do three a day, that is four days of testing. Value added time = 12 hours

Days eleven – thirteen

The team spend three days analysising and synthesising the results, pull supporting video clips and produce a detailed report. Value added time – 15 hours

Day fourteen

The client sees the report for the first time. (Value added time = 2 hours). Interesting results. (IT representation were not invited, they did not commission the report, the product owner wants to see the output first before sharing it with IT).

Day sixteen

The product owner informs the dev team of the changes that need to be made in the light of the usability report. Project manager sucks air through his teeth and says “you’ll need to raise a change request for those items… ha! quick wins they say? hardly… Hmmm, OK, change the labels in the field, we should be able to do that…”

Value added Vs. Elapsed time

The usability company has delivered and their engagement is complete.  From the start of the process to the recommendations hitting the developers who must ultimately action these, for this not-too-fictitious scenario sixteen days have passed, of which only four were spent on value-added tasks, actually doing stuff.

Day n

The product goes live. The usability company are aghast that so many of the changes they reccomended have not been implemented. They place the blame fairly and sqaurely at the door of the developers and reinforce their belief that IT just doesn’t listen, or worse, care about usability. The critics have critcised from their armchair, like the pigs and chickens they are the chickens, participated not committed.

Usability rant part 2>

Magic moment at the Waldorf hotel

ThoughtWorks had its party on Friday night at the Waldorf Hotel in London.  Seventy or so years ago when my grandparents were married they stayed there on their first night.  Fifty years later my Grandfather was going through some old paperwork and dug out the original receipt from their stay.  To celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary he wrote to the Waldorf, booking a room and enclosed a copy of the recept for their interest and ammusement.  He thought nothing more of it until they arrived.  They were given the same room that stayed in 50 years before.  The following day when they checked out and my Gradfather was settling the bill, something was wrong.  ‘This can’t be right’ he said, ‘surely you’ve left a nought off’.  But it was right.  The Waldorf were charging him the same price that he paid fifty years previously.  That was a real magic moment.

Follow fast

I’ll pick on a random industry. Let’s say you are an airline. Part of your digital strategy includes a refresh to your website (maybe you were inspired by this presentation I did a while ago on digital for airlines!). You’ve built a business case and secured funding for the project.  First things first, you get a design agency in and set them to work.

Some sort of competitor analysis is performed that proabably includes features and functions that “we like”, (for example ‘the tactile sliders in We like!  And an iPhone-like coverflow, got to have one of those…)

The information architect takes these ideas away and starts building wireframes and the creative team produce designs that bring these wires to life.  The team come up with lots of new, innovative ideas.  This is after all a ‘refresh’, and ‘innovation’ was probably one of the words in the brief.  The creative is fresh and ‘of the moment’, the IA has developed some new interaction models that are unique and compelling.  The business is sold on a new, innovative way of interacting with their customers, something that no one else does and will blow all their competitors away.

I’ve been bouncing ideas around with Luke Barrett (and because he doesn’t blog, I’ll write them down for him) around this approach; specifically the value of innovation against ‘follow fast’.

Luke reminded me of a project we worked on together many years ago. Before we started designing webpages we did usability testing. We did usability testing of the competitors, and of sites that were getting a lot of press as ‘innovative’.  This was at a time that had just started and the client were talking about how cool an avatar would be on their site, just like boo. We put people in front of and watched them suffer. Clearly the avatar was an idea good on paper, terrible on execution.  So we killed it.  Not on our site.

We observed what worked and what didn’t on a multitude of sites with real users. Then, like magpies, we took what was good and worked. Nothing particularly innovative, (let other people do that), we took the best of what existed and delivered on that.

So back to our airline. How about a different approach where they start by usability testing their competitors. Ask participants to book tickets on competitor websites. Understand what interaction elements work, what don’t.

Those kayak sliders, cool for geeks (maybe), but how about the target audience that flies and buys online with you?  It may not be cutting edge design, but Does a drop down work better?

The coverflow may be cool on your iPhone, but how successful is it for people seeking a holiday?  A static list has worked for websites till now (and it wasn’t so long ago that horizontal scrolling was the Great Taboo), just because Apple do something that looks cool for a particular purpose on their products, doesn’t mean you have to follow by scrapping your navigation.

There are no prizies for (design) innovation (other than for some award that the design agency may covet). The only metric that counts is conversion rates and the ability of the website to deliver the business case. Leave others to do the crazy innovation stuff, let others go through the dip when they launch new features, make sure you have got the platform and expertise right and be ready to follow fast.

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