Staples On a Telephone Pole

We still see staples on a telephone pole — the analog begetting the digital — staples as remnants of past messages. There’s something nice about seeing a flyer stapled to utility pole. It’s a reminder that the tactile, the tangible — the item, or service, or support – is the end goal. It’s why the NFC ‘hello’ bump is a hollow substitute for the handshake. Google Hangouts is an intermediary for sitting across the table.

All of our techie innovations seek to simulate in-person actions or interactions. As a brand, this places us at the slender intersection of convenience and personalization — this is the playground of #CX: Customer Experience.

There are approximately 130 million creosote-soaked trees propping up the ones and zeroes that drop packets into your devices. Yet most towns have a host pole with paper flyers for local sales, a band playing at the coffee shop or a house for sale – your iPhone and Facebook have not taken this away. In contrast there are 3.85 billion web pages (as of today), each one of them seeking a physical reaction: a purchase, a sign up, a laugh, a cry, a “hmm”, a share or a view of a brand message.

Technology aims to reduce effort but it never replaces interactions. When you are designing your customer experience bear in mind that email newsletters, tweets, micro-sites, mobile and surveys are tactics that employ scents of your brand. But when the next newsletter comes into a customer’s email box will they remember you? Or will you be another rusted staple on the telephone pole?






  • Filed under Content Strategy, Customer Experience   /  

Squealing Feedback

There’s feedback, and then there’s feedback.

There’s the sophisticated definition of feedback that Norbert Weiner described in Cybernetics and Society: “The property of being able to adjust future conduct by past performance.” That is, a system’s ability to measure its work against that work’s outcome, and make systemic adjustments to maintain or improve quality of outcome. Instrumental feedback is a primitive example of this, as it registers systemic dysfunction, but relies on people to correct.

And then there’s the feedback I learned as a callow teen on the streets of Miami, gigging around sleazy clubs with my band The Bad Kids (it was an ironically bad name, I tell myself). We would sometimes have to set up in such cramped quarters that we couldn’t play a note without peals of screeching noise emanating from our amps and PA.

That’s feedback.

Some of the greatest punk and experimental bands intentionally utilize(d) feedback, because of the distress it evokes. A screech of instrumental feedback is, in essence, one simple robot (amplifier) telling an even simpler robot (electric guitar): “BACK OFF.” The audience grasps that on some level. Two entities in unresolved conflict. Exciting stuff.

Engagements have their own feedback process, but all too often it comes at the end, after the drop, when adjustment is a moot point. Happy post-hoc feedback is a warm welcoming drone, like the first Velvet Underground album. Unhappy post-hoc feedback is an anguished shriek of frustration and paranoia, like the second Velvet Underground album. Either way, it’s passive. You can sit there and nod, but there’s not much room for participation.

For feedback to be useful, it has to go hand-in-hand with adjustment. Substantive adjustment—not the promise to circle back, not the agreement to think more about it while staying the course for the time being. It requires human agency—the choice to do things differently—the creativity to envision alternative tactics—the courage to try something untried.  It demands honesty to assess the past and broad-mindedness to move forward. If we can’t rise to that standard of action, we operate at the level of paralyzed robots. Instead of sharpening our understanding and rising to a higher potential, we abandon ourselves to our ongoing mistakes, screaming bloody murder and hoping someone comes along and pulls the plug.

  • Filed under Content Strategy   /  

Who’s Asking? How to Avoid Jargon in User Communications

A significant difference exists between the specialized vocabularies that we need to discuss niche or specialty fields, and the bizarre dialects that grow up around certain professions. Jargon is shibboleth. You speak it less to communicate ideas, and more to affirm your membership among an elite.

When jargon litters your user communications, it’s almost always the consequence of copywriters wanting to establish their bona fides with you instead of speaking to your customers. Chalk it up as a risk built into the contractor/stakeholder relationship. These content creators are trying to tell you, the stakeholder, that they are informed, intelligent and have put in the time to understand your market. That makes you feel confident in their crash-course expertise, while validating them as wordsmiths and quick studies.

Their motives are honest, if a bit remiss—but what good is that for your users and customers?

There’s no silver bullet for finding that line between a legit lexicon and the shadowland of jargon. But there are some questions that you can ask yourself.

1.) Who are you talking to? Are you talking to your colleagues and competitors when you should really be talking to outsiders and laymen?

2.) Whose intelligence does this content flatter: your user’s, or yours?

3.) How much of this content has a unique contextual definition? If a word means something different to you and your colleagues than the public at large, it’s time to dust off the thesaurus.

4.) Have you provided your content creator(s) with substantive background material? Writers are experts at convincingly using vocabulary they half-understand. If your discovery provides them jargon without much context or meaning, don’t be surprised if that’s what you get back.

5.) Can you picture an actual person saying what’s written in the copy? What do they look like? If they look like a stock photo cliché, send it back to the writer for another pass.

  • Filed under Content Creation + Mgmt, Content Strategy   /  

“Being on Fire Is Your Emergency. Is This Correct?” Says Veronica in Customer Service

When I lived in Florida, I got to watch my SUV go up in a ball of flames while I was driving it. I was stopped at a red light when a kind gentleman with gonads hanging off his trailer hitch, and a decal of Calvin peeing on the Ford logo, rolled down his window. “Hey partner. You got some flames there,” he said pointing to my hood. I didn’t see any flames, but I got out anyway and opened the hood, at which point I saw a lot of flames. The light turned green, Citizen of the Month Mr. Truck Nuts rolled on by and I started scrambling to empty my truck of everything inside before it got char broiled.

Right about then, I spotted three fire trucks heading my way. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was. I started jumping up and down, waving my hands, pointing frantically at the flames — I may have even made a suggestive/ambiguous “I need a hose” gesture. But the guys driving the firetruck just smiled, and waved, and drove on by as the flames rose higher and higher and my SUV got meltier and meltier. For the next few months I cursed firetrucks and firefighters nonstop. Until someone explained to me that the headquarters for Pierce (where 25+% of all American fire trucks are manufactured) is about a block and half away from where my SUV had bitten the dust. Those hadn’t been firemen driving past me. They were Pierce workers test-driving the new trucks.

Problem + solution / timing

You’ve got a product. It solves a specific problem. Your customer/user, has that problem plus a credit card. Seems like a match made in heaven – until something stops working. When that something isn’t working on the provider side (like a user’s credit card not authorizing), you dispatch an immediate email, clearly communicate what needs to be corrected, and when, and what the consequences will be if it goes unaddressed – the account will be cancelled, access to files will be limited, or some other kind of wrist-slap. But when a user communicates a problem to the provider, the effect doesn’t always happen in reverse. It should.

Don’t get me wrong, not all customer emails are relevant. But they almost always tell us a story about our organizations — good or bad. Many users, especially of SaaS tools, send emails to customer service because the product either doesn’t work as advertised or they simply don’t understand how it works. When they send that email they are likely smack-dab in the middle of trying to do something timely, perhaps even urgent. The immediate problem for the user is only one of many challenges for the product/company. We read a lot about email overload and how to segment important emails from urgent ones. That’s probably adequate on the user side, but the challenge for products lies in time and transparency.

The time between a problem being identified and solved is not nearly as important as the time between its being identified and a user communication response being dispatched. This time gets conflated and compounded through the transparency of social media and outbound marketing communications. When a user receives a 20% off coupon before getting a real response to their service ticket, it feels like a personal affront. It’s not, but it feels that way. When a user sees a tweet or Facebook post from a brand they are waiting to hear from personally, they start to distrust the brand. Every public communication a brand makes is directed at both the singular user and the using collective. So when the single user has an unresolved issue and sees a communication to the group, which doesn’t address that issue, they make one of two assumptions:

1) The next guy or new user is more important that me.

2) You read but ignored my concern.

You’ll notice that neither of these assumptions include – “perhaps they didn’t get my message.” The SEND button presumes receipt, and tools like Yesware can verify receipt—and open—and reply. Sometimes your users calmly describe a problem, other times they frantically wave their hands and point at a fire that is (or isn’t) there. Customer Service is eventually about discerning real problems. But even before that, it’s about servicing the customer. That may mean extinguishing a real product-related fire, or just letting someone know you heard their concern. When brands have time to communicate to unknown prospects on social media, but don’t have time to respond to customer service emails, the message is clear — “Next in line.”

You may need to provide a candle to light the user’s way. Or a hose to stifle a conflagration. If you do nothing else, respond with a note to say “I hear you.”  If you don’t, your old customers will soon be driving past you as you wave to them with coupons, e-vites and surveys. Their fires may have burned out by then, but yours might just be starting to smoke.




  • Filed under Content Strategy   /  

Incorporating Random Chance into UX Design

Netflix recently presented a neat model for working random chance into UX design when they rolled out A/B testing for their new My List feature—an alternative to their long-running Queue feature. The new design comes packaged with a Random Suggestion carousel on top of more tightly focused behavioral-adaptative recommendations. It’s a smart way to get around the problem that automated curation can cause. We’ve all run into Pandora or Spotify dead-ends, where one lousy day of appreciating Gordon Lightfoot’s genius comes back to haunt your recommendations for months to come. It’s an unintended consequence of behavioral adaptive AI: a feedback loop of ever-narrowing personalization that shrinks your taste to a cartoon of itself.

Evolutionary change occurs via random mutations, and non-random selection that comes from interaction with the environment. In the world of content strategy and design, that environment is your iterative or editorial process, the testing field which determines those new forms to keep and those to discard. In the user’s interaction with your product, it takes the form of experimentation and selection with novel content.

Incorporating random chance into your design gives you and your users the opportunity to break out of old habits, to test new content, expose yourselves to new markets, and maybe, if you’re lucky, grow a little as individuals. It’s an escape hatch from the echo chamber, a way around those occasions when we don’t quite know what we want. It’s a free bit of insight into what’s been overlooked. Tap into that expansive, multifaceted quality of your users. Open your UX to the possibility of a little luck and you’ll discover unthought-of directions.

  • Filed under Content Strategy, Design + UX   /  

Experiences Redefined

A cascade of social feedback alters our construction of experience to a degree that it can no longer really be considered “ours.” With the advent of social media the stages of experience are blending together, and accelerating, for better or worse. We now have to contend not only with the experience as it occurs, but with the echoing replicants that recording engenders.

Daguerre brought us the first replicant experience, but in his day distribution was limited, feedback virtually non-existent, and iterative capabilities slow and costly. What in Daguerre’s time proved to be a mostly two-stage experience of observation and capture today stretches into 6 rapid, self-reflexive stages:

1) The event in real time – watching my 5-year-old play Galaga.

2) Interruption for the purpose of capture – the decision to grab my phone and take a picture/video.

3) The immediate re-experiencing of the event – watching what “just happened” on the device. (sometimes while the event is still in progress).

4) Dissemination of the event – uploading and sharing the picture/video.

—An abyss of ownership in which control is transferred to those experiencing its recorded replicant (i.e. those not present)—

5) Reaction to the now-public event – social feedback and reinterpretation.

6) The experience redefined – Comments and opinions generated by social feedback, insinuate themselves and reshape the original experience.

As a company, or an individual, you need to think about all of these stages. An original experience – a conference , a sale, an open house – is a fleeting moment which shrinks in contrast to the eternity represented by its social reception and reassignment. Most brand experiences quickly become content, and content has endless options for new layers. But absent a cosmic Ctrl-Z or the ability to control those endless layer, what can content become? What you create and choose to share is a handoff to strangers with bullhorns and billboards. You need to determine if you are sharing content that will help you connect, serve as distraction or find redefinition as something you didn’t expect – good or bad.



  • Filed under Branded Content, Content Strategy, Social Media   /  

Ask the Dumb Questions

“Question Everything” is a hammer and a magnifying glass. Depending on its use, it can undermine certainty or clarify understanding. The difference usually lies in the complexity of the question. The bloggable twist: contrary to supposition, the “dumber” the question, the greater the clarity.

Ask the dumb question. Start with the dumbest and work your way up to smart. It’s the dumbest questions that offer the incontrovertible facts. It’s the smart ones that leave otherwise intelligent people debating semantics, or how many use cases can dance on the head of a pin.

It’s inevitable that people will initially advocate for a strategic path that treats dissent as adversarial—to be overruled. Conversely, an unconvinced party will treat pre-buy-in strategy as antithesis to be undermined. An adversarial approach to truth-finding might serve us judicially, but in product-development or content strategy, consensus is the interpersonal goal, while maximal simplicity/grace—not zero-sum victory—is the material goal. The dumber the question, the more incontrovertible the resolution, the less potential for antagonism.

Non-technical stakeholders have a right to explanations that start with no-brainer antecedents and expand from there. Developers shouldn’t be expected to divine nuts-and-bolts logic from high-flown abstractions. You all deserve a map of the decisions and assumptions that have moved your project from the crudest axioms to the most refined experiences.

  • Filed under Content Strategy, Design + UX, Technology   /  

Tags – You’re It

No matter how good your UX is, once your content or data reaches a certain critical mass, you will have to contend with the need to develop search functions. It’s funny what a stumbling block the mere issue can become, never mind undertaking the actual work. You’re leery of over-categorizing because you don’t want to circumscribe your potential. The fear is that well-defined buckets are an admission that your organization is limited in its capabilities, or that you will shut out some customers for the benefit of others.

Google has spoiled us by making search look so easy. But we’ve all had the experience of using a website’s native search function, only to get back hundreds if not thousands of useless returns. Unless you have Google money and talent to develop behavioral adaptation, that’s the level of quality you can expect. Someone—man or machine—has to analyze each piece of content beforehand, extract semantic metadata and appropriately identify it.

The option available to most businesses is the human one—tight categorization and taxonomy, tagging and intuitive UX. Non-behavioral full text search, the kind a non-multibillion dollar company can afford—puts onus on users to sift through responses for relevant items. Methodical tagging lifts that burden and (incr)eases engagement.

There’s a kind of suspicion that floats around the human element of this approach. You could theoretically build your tagging taxonomy on the back of Starbucks receipts. That analog simplicity makes it feel, at the visceral level, like a lazy contrivance, or a sign that your strategist might be a technical lightweight.

It may be an analog task, but in this case, leaving search functionality up to a one-size-fits all plugin is the path of least resistance that takes you nowhere. The limited capabilities of full text search (at least the kind you can afford) yield either useless results, or leave out relevant returns that don’t contain the exact terms being searched for. It takes focus, intense scrutiny, discernment and attention span—from your strategy team, your devs and you—to do with tagging and taxonomy what might be performed with rigorous behavioral search algorithms. But it’s the only way to get million-dollar results with thousand-dollar budgets. It can’t be passed off, or thrown into an afternoon of multitasking. Tags, you’re it.


  • Filed under Content Strategy   /  

UX Voyeurism

I recently helped a friend perform a usability study and got a chance to see how he worked—and how his working affected where the actual finish line was. Inspiring stuff. The magic was not in the tools he and his team were using, but the speed and focus applied to the project.

Most projects resemble a game of Tron. Decisions that you, or your team, made three turns ago create roadblocks for decisions yet to be made. Sometimes budgets are to blame, other times platforms change their TOS, but more often it’s a case of getting caught staring at the finish line and missing the pothole two steps ahead. When you take the time to watch how someone else performs product design & UX (and trust me, this was, a performance) the spectator in you extracts process details and connects dots.

Meanwhile, back in my friend’s office, they are not manhandling an idea towards a subscribed goal. Instead they are letting the goal drive them towards some thing, some idea yet to be flushed out, nailed down and fully defined. The process of Lean, and being nimble, is just as exciting staring in from the outside as it is rolling in the trenches. Pull the curtain back, way back and get a good look.


  • Filed under Design + UX   /  

Content Doesn’t Like Band-Aid Solutions

A new app, an old site. A pristine Band-Aid, clean out of the box—a fresh scrape.

As a father of four, who recently made the chancy decision to build a bike ramp out of whatever was around, I’ve had a lot of time to think about Band-Aids lately. The bandage itself doesn’t heal the wound. Scrapes and nicks heal from the inside out. A band-aid covers over injuries, keeping them away from further harm. But left on too long, they actually slow down the repair process.

Likewise, content resists surface (Band-Aid) solutions because it resides at the core of your offering. Covering over content problems with a new CMS or a reskin keeps the poison in your system. Eventually the untreated system infects other systems and the beige perforated mask that was supposed to help, hurts. You could go to the doctor but you likely want to keep things in-house. Do you know what the actual problem is? When you find the root of the infection, how deep do you go? We would say: all the way down. But then, of course we would.

This is reality: You’ve got limitations—to your budget, your time, your patience. But if you can’t solve content complications at the foundation (if you can’t clean out the wound), at the very least don’t make things worse by covering over it with a big-beige complexity. You may think you can just keep replacing Band-Aids ad-infinitum but that strategy will get you sick, and tired.

Better to let your content air out than keep it covered and not know what’s going on under there.






  • Filed under Content Strategy, Design + UX   /