[Unlearning] Elevating the positives gives more value than eliminating the negatives…

Eliminating the negatives is what we are all good at… our focus is to create a complaint-free service… our energy is spent in filling the gaps, removing the nuances… but then we are rarely left with time to even aspire for the extraordinary?

elevate the positives

Inspired by Jamsetji Tata’s approach to lift up the best and the most gifted and not just prop up the weakest, I started to look for its application in business. I did not expect to find an immediate validation, but imagine my surprise (and excitement) when I found an interesting narrative in a book I was reading over Christmas (The Power of Moments by Chip Heath & Dan Heath).

In the book, the authors introduce a study undertaken with thousands of executives from consumer experience, which shows that on an average most companies spend 80% of their resources trying to improve the experience of severely unhappy customers. This is hardly surprising – after all when a customer has a satisfaction level of 5 or 6, they are reasonably happy and our natural response is to eliminate the worst customer problems and fix the issues of the unhappy customers who are at satisfaction levels 1 or 2.

The interesting aspect of the study was to map the data to a financial value of the customer. They referred to model on financial value of customer that has been developed by Forrester and suggests that the happiest people in the industry tend to spend more. The data from the model suggests that moving a customer from a satisfaction level of 4 to 7 generates more additional spending than moving from a level of 1 to 4. The results are illuminating – if you elevate the positives, you earn nine times more revenue than if you eliminate the negatives.

The thought on the table is to channelize the energy to nudge the neutrals (satisfaction levels 4-6) to positives (level 7 and above), rather than invest in moving the unhappy customers (satisfaction level 1-3) to neutral.

This maps to adding features and services that delight customers and to explicitly focus on creating such positive moments (there can be many definitions of positive moments but we can just start with the elements of elevation, insight, pride and connection that Chip & Dan introduce in their book).

Of-course I am not advocating abandoning the unhappy customers or ignoring basic problems – instead I am highlighting the need to reorient ourselves – to review our priorities, to move beyond fixing problems, to allow resources for building extraordinary experiences… I am simply reminding ourselves of the missed opportunity… the opportunity to create experiences that stays with us…

This note is a page from my diary – UnLearning, which records all those random thoughts (ideas and fears…) that make me live day-by-day.

[This article was first published @LinkedIn on 28 December, 2017.]

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[Unlearning] When Social Entrepreneurship took a new meaning for me…

 

social entrepreneurship - new meaning

Early in the year, I read a book that chronicled the journey of the Tatas and while the many stories bring out practical business insights, I was particularly fascinated by Jamsetji Tata’s perspective on serving the interests of the country…

I have personally always been fascinated by what Jamsetji Tata (regarded by many as the father of Indian Industry) transpired to achieve (back in the 19th century, in 1868) and it’s amazing to see the disruptions he created… here we struggle to bring small changes whereas he opened up new worlds – in areas that were varied but still key to the growth of modern India – from industrial development (steal and hydro-electric power) to research (and technical education) to social welfare… he’s an inspiration… not just to lead in ideas and action but even more so to have the courage and conviction to take with you those who do not yet share your vision…

What stands out for me is his guiding principle that no success or achievement is worthwhile unless it serves the interests or needs of the country and its people… and the endeavour to create wealth for the nation! And it’s amazing to see how the foundation laid by Jamsetji Tata has stood the test of time and allowed the group to grow, maintaining its values and continuing to diversify to meet emerging India’s needs…

Everyone dreams of creating wealth for themselves but sustaining the passion to look beyond and striving to take the country forward is an inspiration… and Jamsetji’s journey is a reminder that one man’s vision can change not just a few lives, but a country!

As I started to accept that each one of us has the power to achieve more than we think, I was even more intrigued by Jamsetji’s approach to serving the needs of the country. His belief – that what advances a nation or a community is not so much to prop up its weakest and the most helpless members, but to lift up the best and the most gifted, so as to make them of the greatest service to the country – is so different from common thinking and most philanthropic initiatives of feeding the poor and healing the sick – and probably why he has left an indelible mark on India and its people – not just over a few years but across centuries.
This is a new way of looking at social entrepreneurship for me. While my passion has been to apply technology advancements for social impact – I cannot deny that my focus has been to look at selective pockets of social and economic change – and now it seems that I may be missing countless opportunities for a bigger impact.

I have something to think about as I start the new year – and as a first step maybe to evolve the infrastructure, services or ecosystems – not just to meet the basic needs of the moderate or the ordinary – but to relook from a different angle and extend the platforms with new capabilities to support the best and drive them towards their potential… yes, I really believe that this approach has far reaching possibilities – beyond social impact to also business impact!

This note is a page from my diary – UnLearning, which records all those random thoughts (ideas and fears…) that make me live day-by-day.

[Unlearning] Let the act become the destination…

let act be the destination

Earlier in the year I read Phil Knight’s ‘Shoe Dog: A memoir by the Creator of Nike’… it could not have been better timing for me… it inspired me to live the journey, to continue to believe in my dreams (and of-course believe in me!).

I have always been running after goals – one goal to the next and the next! In the rush to reach the destination, I have sometimes been irritated and often frustrated when faced with a challenge or just about any event that delays the goal – not just missing out on countless opportunities to explore but more simply the pure joy of doing what I started to…

Phil Knight’s journey that led to Nike may not be as well known as Steve Jobs story of Apple but it’s no less an inspiration… Shy, introvert, often insecure – Phil is far off from the bold dashing image of a typical entrepreneur… giving hope to many of us…

The memoir is surprisingly honest… he is so humble… underplays the successes and presents many choices to be accidental – be it the design of the iconic swoosh logo, coining of the name Nike (inspired from the Greek goddess Athena Nike thought to be the bringer of ‘nike’ or victory) or introduction of the innovative air technology…

An amazing story, it’s an honest reminder of what it takes to live your dream… to build a successful business – contrary to perceptions it’s no glamorous journey but years of endless struggles, terrifying risks, crushing setbacks and heartbreaking sacrifices… rewards are few and far from guaranteed… you realise the harsh reality that often just hard work and determination is not enough and luck may decide the outcome… you often wonder why you are doing it but despite all handicaps you still do (!) and its the act that becomes the destination… and it’s only faith – faith in yourself and faith in faith – that in the end matters!

For us who have grown up loving and admiring Nike, it is unimaginable to believe that a major part of the journey saw them living with the daily fear of failure… it makes it all the more admirable that they emerged into such a strong brand despite the humble beginnings and decades of struggles… but it’s a real example of the power of shared dreams… and what can be achieved if you keep going… if you don’t give up… if you live every moment of the journey fully… it’s a reminder to us all to live our dream, for the alternative is ‘not-to-live’!

This article is a page from my diary – UnLearning, which records all those random thoughts (ideas and fears…) that make me live day-by-day.

Shifting gears… driving all efforts to maximise every client interaction…

clientconversation

Be it optimising processes or driving revenue growth, the key is focus on the client conversation!

It all started – many years back – with sales force automation which laid the foundation for companies to drive their sales processes. The challenge was daunting – managing opportunities, accounts, contacts and pipelines for sales forecasting, and the goal of sales force automation was to improve operational efficiencies. Over time, many peripheral sales processes such as lead management, quote management, territory management, strategic account management and partner relationship management were also integrated to build a single platform for managing the entire client journey. Recent innovation is looking to add predictive analytics for opportunities, business process modeling, sales-methodology overlay and vertical specific products to further optimize workflows.

But removing operating inefficiencies can rarely – on its own – deliver revenue growth; and this realisation shifted focus to sales efficiency (mostly under the head of performance or productivity) and brought in initiatives to develop sales capability. It led to the emergence of new tools and processes – all within the SFA environment – starting with sales content management (creation, curation, and analytics for usage and influence), feeding it into onboarding, coaching, role-play, training and slowly extending to applying this knowledge to specific sales situations with curated account intelligence, just-in-time training, recommended sales content and many similar functions. Increased experimentation with such tools can be seen under broad initiatives of sales enablement or sales excellence (or even the not so fancy old-but-still-relevant sales training).

It’s quite fascinating to watch these innovations. It sounds so cool, so intelligent – a system that can dynamically deliver contextual content to me, that too just when I need it. However there is one big catch. The efficacy of these targeted push solutions is highly dependent on the quality of data that exists in the system – the data needs to be accurate and timely to build the contexts and identify the co-relations, else it will end up delivering static set of pre-defined resources or running predictive analytics on an incomplete or even worse irrelevant data set. And this is where most of the current systems start to fail to deliver on the promise.

In this scenario, I am reminded of a lesson I learnt (as always the hard way) in the early days of my career – a lesson I have never been able to forget – that you can be highly efficient but continue to do the wrong thing (!) and that the measure can never be actions but has to be only-and-only outcomes.

The focus really needs to shift from efficiency to effectiveness… You can argue that many of the sales enablement solutions are designed to improve effectiveness as well… and it may even be true for simple out-of-the-box solutions where you need to deliver consistent messaging about what you do and what you offer and deal with a set of known objections. However, my experience has been that in today’s complex business scenarios, selling is not about talking of what you can offer but instead understanding the client’s pain points and challenges and often extrapolating the implicit needs from those conversations. Solutions are not static and a solution that fits one set of conditions may not be effective in another.

The key to effectiveness is to understand the situation and ask the right set of questions at the right time. It’s a challenge not just to know what to ask but to figure out what is more important and relevant in the current context.

With growing sales cycles and increased cost-of-sales, the need is to maximise every client interaction. But there is little support from the environment, which continues to be weak on managing and driving client conversations as also extracting actionable intelligence from sales interactions.

It is not hard to understand the real problem – all these systems are designed for management and there is very little for the person in the field to gain – a person whose life revolves around clients – he meets new clients and stays in touch with old clients, building relationships, understanding their needs, finding about their pain points, talking about solutions, understanding other options and in the process collecting so much of data and bits-and-pieces of market action, competition strategy and emerging innovative alternatives. All this real intelligence just sits in people’s heads and never gets shared into the systems. If it did – it would open up a plethora of options on which to respond and stimulate business decisions that can transform the win cycles.

The crux then is to capture the client conversations – accurately and in-time. This will bring the larger organization into the decision making circle and also drive these next-gen intelligent systems to drive the cycle of contextual discoveries.

Accurate and timely capture drives contextual discovery, which in turn drives dynamic responses and maximises client conversations.

But the big question – how? Hardly anyone has been able to drive client conversations into the CRM.

Arti is the co-founder of humanLearning – a fast growing UK-based technology startup – setup with an earnest desire to make the life of busy professionals simpler and more effective. hL is disrupting business workflows thru short structured and searchable videos and event-driven SaaS. Arti can be reached at arti@humanlearning.com. Arti has spent a major part of her working life in the field trying to create new opportunities in the leading edge high-technology complex solution space and used this experience to design their new platform vyn.

vyn, a new tool, tries to address the challenge of feeding client conversations into CRM by embedding the way of selling into daily action. Centered on client conversations, it asks the right people, the right questions at the right time. Structured storyboards ensure that no important aspect is missed out and by making sure that one speaks for less than a minute, it keeps it just to the point. With short, storyboarded videos, it is now easy to capture updates, insights or any other information directly into the CRM – wherever one may be – and allow all stakeholders to participate and contribute to moving the conversation forward.

But where the tool really scores is that it slowly starts to assist the sales person in daily chores… its like a super efficient virtual assistant – that mostly leaves you alone but in between sends a few prompts – triggered on key events in the client journey – these provide timely reminders for urgent actions and make sure that you don’t miss anything. Even better, when you need it most, it guides you with simple storyboards at every step and ensures that you are fully prepared with the right set of questions and answers at the right time, and can maximise every client conversation. And of-course it makes life simpler…

[This article was first published @LinkedIn on 03 March 2017.]

Past Trends rarely lead to a new idea…

From Observing to Wondering… Design Thinking opens up a new way of looking at things!

from observing to wondering

I trained as an engineer. My experience (working with some cool designers – a few of them from frog design) quickly taught me to unlearn a few fundamental tenets of engineering practices, and instead embrace some contrasting methods from the radically different approach of design thinking. The first shift in my approach occurred in the mid-2000’s when I learnt the power of moving from a vertical (first) thinking to horizontal (first) thinking. The second shift started a few years thereafter, and it has taken me beyond the realm of conventional reasoning.

Over the years (in part due to my scientific training), I have learnt to combine deductive (top-down) reasoning i.e. applying theories and premises to specific instances, with inductive (bottom-up) reasoning, using observations to build hypothesis and theories. The focus has always been conformance to theories or hypothesis, and the goal is to discern patterns, connect dots and build correlations.

But, I have grown to believe that at times we have to go against the rational extrapolations of data and rely on anecdotal observations and instincts. Many-a-times I find that both deductive and inductive reasoning fail miserably.

In today’s era of data explosion, where we are constantly looking for past trends and data patterns, I have started to question the very goal of looking for conformance and patterns. I have started – instead – to search for those samples of data that break the pattern and wonder why? I know it disrupts conventional wisdom – but I find that it gives me space to think beyond accepted norms, anticipate new circumstances and look for new possibilities. It is quite possible that my interactions with designers has reinforced my own rebellious and contrarian attitude… and given me the confidence to break tradition and opt for design approach of ‘what if…?’ So what if I am currently starting with an incomplete set of observations… I can come up with not just one but several possible explanations. Of-course these are limited by the available information and are often based on conjecture and designed by my imaginative faculties. But it may be the starting point for a very different hypothesis, which can (of-course) be tested over time.

If I had any initial doubts, they soon eroded when I found support from a credible source – an American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (sometimes known as the father of pragmatism) has argued that no new idea could be proved deductively or inductively using past data and in his writings he introduces abductive reasoning, characterised as guessing and an inference to an explanatory hypothesis. He compares the different modes of inference and explains that deduction proves that something must be; induction shows that something actually is operative (it never proposes a new idea for its conclusion); abduction merely suggests that something may be (and seeks a new hypothesis to account for facts).

We have seen ourselves that we can hardly ever explain a new idea using past trends and data patterns… a new idea usually takes form when an observation does not fit into an existing model and we try to make sense of the ‘surprising’ observation by coming up with one or more explanations and slowly arriving at the best explanation.

We tend to forget that data is about past, emerging trends are about the future? And that’s where the problem with conventional thinking lies. Design thinking has extended my outlook with the what-if approach and trained me to move beyond simply observing to start imagining, wondering…

I love thinking about ideas freely… and observing them take shape!

This article is a page from my diary: UnLearning, more specifically an interesting section on ‘Embracing elements of Design Thinking’.

This article was first published at @LinkedIn on September 04, 2016.

 

What if sales transformation could become just another every-day project and not be a big managed initiative…?

Is this just a dream…? What if a CRM system automatically prompts me at the right time and guides me with a simple (not more than 2-3 lines) template, telling me what to do… I will always on top of the client journey! I will always know what to do, how to do and when to do…

on top of the client journey

Sales Transformation is more than deploying of new sales methodologies… its really about changing sales behaviour… and driving sustainable change… far bigger a challenge than most realise!

In recent client interactions, I have found many clients investing in expensive sales methodology trainings, setting up new workflows, building checks and balances… driving their teams to comply to newly deployed systems or processes…

There are many different sales methodologies in use – from the more widely known ones like Miller- Heiman’s Strategic Selling, SPIN Selling, Target Account Selling (TAS) etc., to a few that have their own niche following such as MEDDIC, The Challenger Sale (TCS, a successor to SPIN), Value Selling Framework, Solution Selling, SNAP Selling, Sandler, CustomerCentric Selling etc. All of these require the sales teams to adopt a structured approach to the sales cycle… expect them to get acquainted with complex decision matrices, question checklists and develop the capability to select from a vast suite of alternative scenarios…

Lots of investment in time, resources and processes is done by organisations (big and small), and yet the returns fail to match the expectations or the potential – and it always takes longer than projected! This is not from lack of commitment or motivation from the management, nor from selection of incomplete or ineffective methodologies – for each methodology has years of study, research and results that have led to its formulation and evolution. While, some methodologies focus on communication and messaging, others give more attention to important aspects of the sales process like discovery, qualification, decision criterion, decision process, and a few also cover account mapping, identifying champions and developing effective relationship maps.

The biggest stumbling block in effectively embedding these methodologies (or for that matter any new process or workflow) is the standard deployment approach – a few days of targeted intense workshop training (with tons of reference documentation to read and refer), followed by managed introduction of the new process, and setting up internal programs to drive adoption and compliance of the workflow through monitoring, tracking and regulating actions.

The reality is that however good the methodology and the supporting frameworks or worksheets, it is one thing to know what is required, a completely different thing to overcome inertia and an even a bigger ask to develop the capability to select from a vast range of options to put that into action. It is very natural to unintentionally fall back into the comfortable and tested mode of operation… and even the most effective of all monitoring and tracking is limited in effectiveness to simply managing and rewarding activity and very rarely get further down into quality or tangible results.

My personal experience has shown that the key to success is to try to embed the new methodologies into every day action. Do not simply rely on the quarterly, monthly or weekly reviews of plans, strategy or approach – big scary excel sheets, fancy blue sheets or other frameworks – as these are offline snapshot activities (and after all reviews!)… Instead enable every update, every action to automatically answer the questions and capture the information relevant to the stage of the client journey… Of-course this is easier said than done… but is achievable by supporting human intelligence with elements of collaborative intelligence and machine intelligence… support the user by giving him prompts – at the right time of the client journey – that guide him to the relevant questions… (Believe me – all sales users will love the fact that there is no need to remember the questions or the criterion or the complex matrices, or refer to offline reference tutorial to understand the definitions of confusing terminology or fill up documentation and worksheets!).

Remember that these prompts and questions cannot be big word documents or excel worksheets – that will turn off all of us… given our attention span 2-3 lines describing the question will work best… what if don’t even have to write down the answers and can instead capture the response as a short video? Well! We have our new template or worksheet – a short structured video! Where every question is just a segment in the video, and as the question is prompted we answer the question on video and move on to the next question… so a series of 3-4 questions gets recorded as a short structured video… just imagine the simplicity over all the documentation!

Is this doable? What does this require?

  • Take the client journey and map it to our own definitive stages – stages that we have identified for our custom workflow (say discovery, definition and scoping, qualification, positioning and validation, negotiation, closure etc.)
  • For each stage, building upon the methodology in use, list down the applicable questions and qualifiers (e.g. Is this an opportunity? Can we compete? Can we win? Is it worth winning?)
  • Map the questions into templates. [Each template is a set of 3-4 questions (2-3 lines max) which get encoded as segment descriptors for a structured video]
  • Identify triggers that mark the start or end of different stages and associate the templates with the triggers.
  • Integrate the triggers into the sales workflow (as simple service extensions on the CRM)
  • The occurrence of an event or a trigger will result in an automatic notification to the user, feeding him with the prompt and appropriate template

So, what does it deliver? As a user, I don’t need to refer to offline documentation or associations or supporting apps and toolkits, I simply engage with the defined process of updating client interactions in the CRM system. The process automatically activates on changed triggers or new events and notifies me (the user) on specific action, prompting me with the appropriate template to ensure full coverage of the questions to progress the opportunity or reduce the risk.

The notification acts as a natural check and reminder to engage with the process and the prompts drive the quality of client conversations… The methodology gets embedded as a way of working and requires no offline effort from the user. The underlying goal of building sales capability and moving the organisation towards consultative selling gets gradually into the social fabric of the organisation.

The improved effectiveness of sales and better understanding of client needs opens up new opportunities for accelerating business.

This is not just a concept today but tested in the field through SmartVideoNotesshort, structured and searchable video bites that are embedded into client CRM systems.

SmartVideoNotes (from humanLearning) are being used by global organisations today to drive sales transformation and embed new sales behaviour through use of customized client journey templates and associations. It is also being used for digital transformation to embed technology and innovation into everyday actions.

This article was published @LinkedIn on August 05, 2016.

Watching someone do something can make you experience it as if you are doing it yourself… hard to believe?

Sounds far-fetched! But, believe me it’s not a figment drawn from science fiction but grounded in neuroscience studies…

mirror neurons

I recently came across a reference to mirror neurons in neuroscience studies and the more I read about them the more I got intrigued…

A simple explanation suggests that there are specialised neurons (named the mirror neurons) that are seen to fire both when a person acts and when the person observes the same action performed by another – thus mirroring the behaviour of the actor, as though the observer was himself performing the action.

If this is true, then its almost as if the mirror neuron is performing a virtual reality simulation of the other person’s action… just think about the possibilities – it can start to explain simple behavioural and complex social responses… I have often wondered why most of us get so engaged and emotionally charged when we watch our favourite sports… it’s almost as if we are playing ourselves! Could it be the mirror neurons in play?

As with any new discovery it’s a subject of speculation and intense debate and while its premature for us to draw conclusions, I am personally biased by my passion for understanding how our brain adapts and using that to simplify every day activities.

The potential of the discovery in itself is enough motivation (for me) to delve deeper into the subject and the initial opinions that I have found have not yet disappointed me. (Ref. A good introduction to the subject is a TED talk  by neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran where he describes his research on mirror neurons).

Most of the discussions talk about the potential role and importance of mirror neurons in two different areas – from understanding the actions of other people or empathy (where we could literally experience what others are experiencing and adopt the other’s point of view) to learning new skills by imitation (where the mirror systems simulate observed actions). The experiments show that while we can empathise and imitate other person’s action, we are still able to distinguish, eventually, that the action is not done by us since we do not get the same feedback from the sensory receptors in the skin (touch, pain etc.)

The importance of empathy and imitation is not hard to imagine in any context – from broad social and cultural contexts to dynamic business environments. As our environments become more global and we work in geographically distributed teams, our primary business interactions are centered on email, conference calls, social and collaboration tools, etc. As the opportunity to watch someone in action has notably gone down, it has inadvertently restricted the use of our natural ability of imitation and empathy in everyday interactions.

It is believed that video can fill this void – it provides an opportunity for people to observe and watch others as they speak and act… it is becoming increasingly apparent that embedding video in our interactions and work-flows in product design not just drives simplicity of action, but influences user behaviour through an increased ability to understand and empathise with others and to co-relate more effectively by imitating behaviour and skills.

I genuinely believe that by understanding what makes people act the way they do, we can design more intuitive and engaging products and interactions that match their natural way…

ps. Of-course I cannot deny that my excitement extends beyond every day social and behavioural application and I am equally fascinated by the possibility of a scientific explanation to the Indian philosophy (that I have grown up with,) that is based on the belief that there is no real independent self and we are all part of the same consciousness)… after all who knows we are all connected by neurons and we just need to dissolve the barrier of the physical self to communicate and interact – far more effectively than the current digital plane of the internet!

This article was first published @LinkedIn on May 07, 2016. 

 

When products are designed to fall apart…?

DisassembleCar

A couple of days back, the home button of my iPhone stopped responding… this is the second iPhone I have owned that has ended up in this state in the last 3 years… and it got me to think…

As I started to reflect on it, I started to become more and more convinced that this is by design – a clear strategy to deliberately restrict the lifespan of a product… clearly to drive the replacement cycle.

But what intrigued me the most is that this is not a new radical approach conceived by Apple, but has been successfully deployed by product manufacturers and producers for decades.

I came across an interesting story from the 1920’s where it is said that Henry Ford started to buy back scrapped Ford cars and asked his engineering team to disassemble them. Almost everyone believed that the goal was to find the parts that had failed and identify ways of making them better. On the contrary, Henry Ford asked the team to identify the parts that were still working and explore ways of re-designing these parts to cut down their life and have them fail at the same time as the others – a smart business intent to cut down the cost of design and manufacturing and avoid over-designing!

Its an out-of-the-box way of looking at things… and seems to make perfect strategy. Introducing the product lifespan as product parameter adds flexibility to the product development cycle by opening up options for exploring other constraints – not just time, cost or quality, but also technology selection, material properties, user experience, performance, processes, regulations etc.

I got so fascinated with the idea that I continued to look further and found a term planned obsolescence, that has indeed been used in the context of product design and economics… it talks of the approach that attempts to design a product with an artificially limited useful life such that it becomes obsolete or no longer functional after a certain period of time, where the driver is primarily to reduce the repeat purchase time interval i.e. shorten the replacement cycle. It appears that the light bulb was an early target for planned obsolescence when the companies standardised the life of a light bulb to 1000 hours and even went to the extent of fining producers if the light bulbs lasted longer! The strategy has found support from governments in the past and it has been used to stimulate consumption and fuel economy… but over the years it has resulted in divided camps, and in recent times there have been movements against this strategy with some countries now requiring manufacturers to declare the intended product lifespans.

As I thought about it further, it dawned on me that I was practically guilty of following the same strategy… and hence had lost the moral right to be judgemental … I realised that it can easily be argued that we (software providers) are no different and have enforced users to upgrade to new products by stopping support for older technologies, using incompatible interfaces, restricting hardware or OS support and building vendor lock-in… the intellectual production has fallen prey to the same pattern (as industrial and consumer production) of generating constant (renewed) demand for their products… creating a society that lives under the illusion of perpetually new.

In this state of mixed emotions, my view got biased by my own experience and actions… while many people argue that this belief that products are designed to fall apart is a fallacy, I have (albeit reluctantly) to disagree.

My experience of product design and development has taught me that every product design cycle involves a complex interplay between many business, technology and operational factors – from time-to-market, price points and product positioning to technology readiness, user experience, performance or resources, processes etc… and it is a reality that I have designed products with a clear view of a restricted life-span – simply using them as first generation products for early adoption and then replacing them (over time) with new product releases… which is an example in itself of designing products to fall apart (after a time)… or maybe it begins to sound more reasonable when we rephrase it and say that products are designed to work successfully for the defined lifespan and specified business goals…

Of-course, the answer is not what I wanted to hear as it means that I have to start looking for a new phone – even when I did not have the need for any new functionality… but then maybe I do not know what I am missing and may be pleasantly surprised by the ‘new’ product…

Arti is the co-founder of humanLearning (www.humanlearning.com) – a fast growing UK-based technology startup – setup with an earnest desire to make the life of busy professionals simpler and more effective. hL is disrupting business workflows thru WinSight – a mobile-video based platform – that is changing the way businesses drive innovation and quality in sales and service. Arti can be reached at arti@humanlearning.com.

[This article was first published on @LinkedIn on April 16, 2016]

 

If only my interaction with a machine could be Collaborative…?

I realised that most Error Messages frustrate me, some even scare me and only a very few actually guide me through the error scenario…

error scares me

Just last week, I was exploring a new software service – and incredible as it sounds – despite being a native user (and developer) of software, and having survived generations of software applications, I still panicked at the sight of a ‘big red X’ (a typical ‘ERROR’ alert) – so much so – that before I knew, I had instinctively killed the application!

That got me thinking. A simple response by a system to one of my ‘natural’ actions managed to induce a feeling of helplessness and despair, even a degree of frustration and anger – enough for me to give up. And, if I am honest then I know that I have no intention of retrying anytime soon.

I am sure that I am not an exception – many of you will have a similar experience to share – at least at some point in your interaction, with one or another system or application.

I looked further – I found research that said that there is a tendency in all of us to blame ourselves for our failure with everyday objects and systems. Surprised? Well I certainly was. Isn’t it a contradiction to our natural inclination to blame everything that goes wrong in our lives on others or our environment?

But, the underlying question that continued to bother me is simple – if I reflect on my ‘natural’ action, it was nothing but a typical ‘user behaviour’. How can user behaviours be ‘Errors’? So what are we missing?

I guess, it comes down to the product design and user experience. I know, that when I design a product, no matter how I expect users to use the product, it is a reality that, there will always be a few users who will find different and unexpected ways to use it. And a good design can neither ignore that (and hence needs to handle the unexpected), nor be restrictive to force all users to comply with a single flow (which would inherently conflict with their natural behaviour).

I started to look at the error messages that we issue under different error scenarios in our own mobile video application. We had invested a lot of time in humanising all our application messages and notifications, and were even inspired by NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) – so while most had a human touch (and hence were not as scary as the big X), I realised that they still were fairly limited in guiding the user through to the next stage.

I started to look at error messages from different applications under different scenarios. I noticed that even when actual errors encountered were similar, my experience (and hence response) as a user was very different – and the difference was in the small details of how the message was communicated.

And then I remembered an old reference from the book ‘Design of Everyday Objects’, where Don Norman interestingly uses a standard interaction between two people as an example to demonstrate that effective interactions are mostly built on collaboration – where a person tries to understand and respond to the other party, and when something is not understood or is inappropriate, then it is seamlessly questioned, clarified and the collaboration continues naturally.

I guess, as a user, I am tuned to expect my interactions to be collaborative – and hence struggle when my interactions are with a machine (and not another person)… of-course they inevitably fall short! Any expectation that the user behaviour will/should change when interacting with a machine is suspect – we all know how un-adaptable we all are as a species! There is no doubt that the goal for us – as product designers – should be to build in intelligence into the machine interaction and aspire to develop a collaborative interaction between the user and the machine – i.e. when the user does something wrong, the machine should respond by providing clarification, helping the user to understand, guiding the user to continue through to the next stage – ensuring that the communication illustrates how to rectify the inappropriate action and recommend the next actions.

I know it sounds onerous. But it is not. Technology is a powerful tool and we have enough capability and building blocks now to easily build us simple collaborations and design good feedback and interaction models.

I am fascinated with this new challenge. Our goal will now be to eliminate all error messages and instead replace them with messages that aid and continually guide the user…

This article was first published on LinkedIn on January 23, 2016.

When I paid the price for forgetting that the first 5 minutes of user journey is more important than all the cool features…

user journey

I love technology and of-course I thrive on building cool features – nothing compares to the excitement of implementing highly complex algorithms or finding new ways of using the technology to solve a problem.

But many hard experiences have taught me that technology (alone) does not sell and I have over-the-years learnt to first focus on user experience and always keep the technology hidden.

So, when I started to write down the product specifications for my new startup idea, I did everything right – there was not a single word on technology and I captured the product definition through 5 stages of user journey.

[5 Minutes] captured the 1st Experience: AWARENESS

[5 Hours] focused on the 1st Use: ORIENTATION

[5 Days] looked at making it work for the user and lead to Participation: PERSONALISATION

[5 Weeks] looked at making it work for the larger group and added elements of Induction: INFLUENCE

[Ongoing] introduced capabilities to sustain the momentum: CULTURE

It was the right way to do it. We ran the user journeys with many clients and fed the inputs and preferences back. After 4 months of market validation we decided we were ready to start development.

And that’s when the problem inadvertently occurred (of-course, I never realised it at that time). As we drew out the release plan we ran through the normal cycle of chopping features and prioritised to define the feature-set for the first beta version. I believe that is when my latent love for technology overtook my experience and I selected the base feature set to include functions that demonstrated the algorithms (justifying it all by saying that these complex contextualization algorithms were our differentiator and critical for illustrating the value to the user). Nothing comes for free – to balance time and resources we decided to take a shortcut for our initial sign-up and login process. At that stage it seemed the perfect thing to do – after all its something a user does only once or at best a few times – and even if its a few extra steps or a little painful – it will still work!

Of-course it worked. But only for those true early-adopters who had the motivation to take that extra initiative and accept a few painful interactions. As our user base grew, a lot many users attempted to sign-up but never managed to get onboard. Its amazing how often it happened – and believe me that the interaction wasn’t anything demanding – it simply required them to copy an access code (sent separately) and input it as part of the sign-up. In those days, we lost a few users and for many others our client engagement teams had to invest time and run after them (and often hand-hold) to complete the process. If only we had stuck to our original definition of keeping the 1st 5 minutes interaction simple and seamless, we would not just have got a lot more people on-boarded, but also ensured that their first touch point was fail-safe.

In hindsight, it seems a blunder – how could we have ignored the fact that users had to onboard first before they could experience the cool contextual and personalisation features? There was no technical complexity to the desired sign-up process and I do not even know if we really saved that many development hours and resources. It’s more like we were avoiding working on a task that had virtually no challenges for us to fix…

What hurts me even more is that its something that I, as a Product Manager, always knew and even apportioned the right value to it at the time of conceptualisation. And yet, somewhere I still lost control on the road from concept to delivery.

This article was first published on Medium on October 27, 2015 and LinkedIn on November 21, 2015.