The black box of creativity

noun_Box_300128Like most researchers, I’m constantly looking to give my clients “actionable insight”.

The truth is there’s no such thing.

Insights don’t work in a vacuum, they need the oxygen of imagination to spark ideas.

Great ideas, whether in marketing or customer experience, come about when you mix a profound insight about a customer need with skilled people’s interpretation of what it means for us and intuition about how to address that need.

Insight + Interpretation + Intuition

Mark Ritson, in the first of a new series on Marketing Week, breaks down the much-lauded Tide Superbowl ad. He makes a number of interesting points about marketing strategy, particularly about the tendency for marketers to obsess over media at the expense of creativity. What I want to pick up on is the story of how the concept came about.

Tide started with the insight that, in a commoditising category, everyone was talking about the same thing—removing dirt. No one was addressing the idea of perfectly clean clothes, and that meant there was a potential opportunity.

P&G briefed their agency (Saatchi & Saatchi), who came up with the idea that if Tide stands for clean clothes, and everyone in TV ads has preternaturally clean clothes, then every ad must be a Tide ad. A great concept, and the quality of the execution puts the icing on the cake.

As Ritson points out, that final creative leap can be frustratingly hard to explain or understand, but it’s not random. It happens when you take good insights, interpret them to fit a clear strategy, and then brief good creative people.

Insight: people want clean clothes, but the category only talks about removing dirt.

Interpretation: we can lift ourselves above the category by talking about cleanliness.

Intuition: if Tide = clean clothes, then every ad’s a Tide ad.

How it works for Customer Experience

I think exactly the same process is there in good customer experience research. The researcher’s job is to uncover insights about customer needs, to build empathy into organisations so that they better understand what shapes customer feelings, and to explore how meaning is created for customers.

None of that can deliver improved experiences on its own.

To have value, insights require interpretation, so that they are understood in the context of a clear customer strategy (I find “emotional value proposition” useful for this). Then comes the “black box” of creative inspiration.

Just like advertising there’s no way to explain how it happens, but if you get the right insight, briefed in the right way, to the right people, then good things will follow. In ‘Well Designed‘ Jon Kolko puts it like this:

Designers learn to purposefully embrace intuitive or inferential leaps of logic…”

That’s what fuels ideas as simple as, my favourite example, removing the clock from a waiting-room wall to improve customer satisfaction with waiting times.


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Measurement madness

banmetrixcsHow valuable is measurement? You often hear variations on the phrase

“What gets measured gets done.”

I’ve probably used it once or twice myself. My organisation makes a living from measurement, so you’d expect us to be in favour of it.

We are, but like anything important measurement needs to be used with care.

Measurement drives behaviour

There’s no doubt that measurement can have a big impact on behaviour. As Edward Tufte points out, as soon as we begin to measure something we start to influence it:

“Measurement itself (and the apparent review of the numbers) can govern a process.”

That can be very positive. By measuring something, such as customer satisfaction, we signal that it matters, and that helps to focus everyone on improving it.

Hidden truths, busting myths

It’s not just about focusing attention. The growing use of analytics in sport has shown that data can reveal flaws in traditional management approaches based on experience and instinct.

Starting with baseball Sabermetrics, popularised in “Moneyball“, data-led management has spread throughout sport, and even threatens to enter the sceptical world of football. Not everyone is a fan of the new wave of statistics—this rant from Craig Burley’s about the “nerd nonsense” of expected goals is fairly typical—but bit by bit they’re becoming mainstream.

In business, as much as in sport, management by data can reveal opportunities to improve, and flaws in current practice, which are impossible to pick up on in any other way.

“Metric fixation”

Measurement is taking over, but unfortunately it can have a dark side.

Some things are easier to measure than others. When we can’t measure what matters, we’re prone to treat what we can measure as important. Metrics should serve to paint a clearer picture of the world as it really is, but sometimes they get in the way of seeing what really matters.

Obsessing over the number can drive short term decision-making, something which has long been an issue in judging the performance of publicly listed companies. The emphasis on this quarter’s profit is understandable, but doesn’t always serve the long-term interests of shareholders, let along anybody else.

Most worryingly, prioritising the metric over than the underlying truth often leads to gaming and unintended consequences. I’m reminded of my nephew, who lies in bed swinging his arm to boost his Fitbit step count.

“The key components of metric fixation are the belief that it is possible – and desirable – to replace professional judgment (acquired through personal experience and talent) with numerical indicators of comparative performance based upon standardised data (metrics); and that the best way to motivate people within these organisations is by attaching rewards and penalties to their measured performance.”

—Jerry Z Muller “Against Metrics

Getting the balance right

Is measurement ultimately a negative force, then? I don’t think it has to be. A few simple principles help to make measurement a positive:

  • Data should be used to inform judgement, not replace it
  • Acknowledge that you can’t measure all the things that matter
  • Always question what the data really tell you (e.g. survivorship bias)
  • Challenge the cost & time spent gathering the data (is it worth it?)
  • Focus communication and management on behaviours rather than results

Using data requires a layer of interpretation to make it meaningful. If we see metrics as an indicator to be incorporated into judgements, rather than as absolute truth, then measurement deserves its place in your organisation.

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Interpreting the visual

noun_visual thinker_844165At our client conference this year I spoke about semiotics. It can be a difficult subject to get to grips with, but I think it’s worth the effort.

Semiotics has a lot to teach us about bringing what Dr Rachel Lawes calls an “outside-in” perspective to qualitative research.

One real strength is that the method can be applied just as well to visual cues as to words. To quote Nicholas Mirzoeff in Introduction to Visual Culture

“…seeing is not believing but interpreting.”

That doesn’t mean that images can simply be “read”. Their impact is too immediate, too powerful, and too visceral to be decoded in verbal terms.

I find it helpful to think about every piece of communication and every customer experience in terms of the balance between its verbal and non-verbal elements. What is being said? What meaning do we derive from the non-verbal cues that accompany what is being said?

If we forget about the non-verbal side of this equation we risk seeming at worst inauthentic (e.g. “your call is very important to us”), at best dry and lacking in emotional impact.

Reason and emotion are not as cleanly separated as we often believe. As Dave Trott points out in this great story, we can address emotion with rational arguments…

“…a rational demonstration can have a more powerful emotional effect than something vacuous designed purely to appeal to the feelings.”

In just the same way, small details in process design can have a big emotional impact on customers (think of Amazon’s delivery notifications).

What semiotics gives you is the ability to step back and analyse how meaning is created by customers’ interpretation of the verbal and non-verbal cues you’re giving them.

Without it you’re working with one eye closed.



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Why ending well is so important

noun_finish line_113911Our memories and perceptions of experience are much less concrete and rational than we like to imagine.

If you don’t accept that, go away and read Kahneman or Ariely, and then we’ll talk.

One particular mental bias that should be at the forefront of our minds when planning customer experiences is the “peak-end rule“.

Simply put, this rule states that we judge an experience* based on how we feel at its most extreme point and at the end. There are subtleties around the length of the experience, and how long-lasting the effects are, which you can read about in the Wikipedia article.

What I want to focus on is the importance of ending customer journeys well (and the end may well be more important than the peak). Whether it’s the big-picture of a customer lifetime, the detail of individual interactions, or the many journeys of all sizes in between, we often let the customer experience peter out instead of ending with a bang.

This is madness.

In many cases the single most powerful change you could make to seize control of the customer experience would be to ensure that you finish strongly. Schedule a call to make sure the customer got what they needed. Send a thank-you note. Go out of your way to make their transition to a new supplier seamless.

The peak-end rule means that you’ll leave the customer with a powerful positive memory, and that’s bound to pay for itself.


* Trying to get psychologists to define what exactly we mean by “an experience” is fun, but the word does seem to correlate with a consistent mental concept shared by all of us.

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What can we learn from HMV?

hmvLike many music fans of a certain vintage, I was sad to hear that HMV has again entered administration.

As a kid, HMV was where I’d spend hours every Saturday flipping through racks of vinyl, tapes, and eventually CDs before deciding where to put my hard-earned* money.

I’m not alone in feeling a sentimental affection for the brand. Penny Anderson’s opinion piece in the Guardian led to a wave of protest on Twitter, mostly from people whe’d be ticking similar boxes to me on the “About you” section of a survey.

While reading the responses, something occurred to me – I haven’t actually bought anything from HMV since before the last time they went into administration.

I suspect many of the angry Twitter commenters haven’t either. Now, HMV’s fate can’t be put down to one cause, whether it’s “asset-stripping” owners, online retail giants, or expensive high street business rates. I’ll let better-qualified people pick over the bones, but you should always be sceptical about simple explanations.

What interests me is the disconnect, exemplified by me, between the affection that many have for the brand and actually putting cash in the till.

As someone who spends his time telling organisations that customer satisfaction and loyalty lead to business success, you can see why this creates an awkward situation for me. Why do so many people feel so warmly about HMV, but don’t choose to shop there?

The answer, again, is too complex for any single explanation. Nostalgia is different to how I feel about the current customer experience. My musical tastes have evolved (a bit) since I was 13. It’s easier to access bands directly online (through sites like Bandcamp). Etc, etc.

What should we learn from HMV? That your brand’s history is an asset, but not one you can keep riding forever. Nostalgic affection is not  the same thing as liking or finding value in the current customer experience. Brands need to find ways to engage each new generation of customers, and evolve the experience as their needs and expectations change.

Doing that consistently well is every bit as difficult as it sounds.


* Well, hardish-earned

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Why experience design & storytelling need emotional messages

noun_Underwater Shark_625795 (1)Albert Mehrabian might be the most misquoted researcher in history. People have used his findings to argue that most communication is nonverbal, which is clearly (and provably) nonsense.

His research showed that we like people if what they say about their feelings matches non-verbal cues such as tone of voice and body language.

If there isn’t a match we tend to trust the non-verbal cues more. In other words, if you say “Oh, how fascinating, do go on.” while looking around and shuffling your feet, I’ll conclude that you’re not that interested in what I’m saying.

This principle of matching, or congruence, is really important for customer experience design and storytelling.

What’s beneath the surface?

That’s the key question. Strip away the words, and what do the non-verbal cues and signals say to the customer? “Your call is very important to us.”…yeah, right.

Gerald Zaltman’s classic book “How Customers Think” is a great starting point for thinking about the unconscious cues that can have a big influence on the customer experience.

Say what you mean, mean what you say

Authenticity is a much abused word. “How do you do authenticity?” a drinks company executive apparently once asked Innocent Drinks. Authenticity is not something you do, it’s something you are.

That doesn’t mean you have to wash all your dirty linen in public, but it does mean you have to tell the truth, and you have to keep your promises (explicit and implicit). Making sure there’s good congruence between what you say and what you do ties directly back to Mehrabian’s work.

Show, don’t tell

Maybe I’m unusually cynical, but I instinctively assume the opposite of any adjectives that people or organisations apply to themselves. Don’t tell me you’re reliable, show me by consistently delivering.

Beyond your behaviour, it’s more powerful to embed messages about yourself in implicit claims through branding than it is to claim them in words. Don’t tell me you’re innovative, show me through your design choices. We’re usually less cynical about messages that appeal to our unconscious mind (try watching an emotional film without the music track and you’ll be amazed how little impact it has on you).


Tell the whole story

Turn to advertising to learn how to tell stories that communicate at the verbal and non-verbal levels simultaneously. Notice how they put the factual messages in the verbal channel, and emotional persuasion in the visuals, music, metaphor, etc.

Take cleaning products as an example. If you transcribe the advert all you’d see is factual claims (“kills 99.9% of germs fast”), but the power of these ads is in the emotional triggers around disgust and fear (the image of a mother wiping her child’s highchair with a raw chicken breast.

Good storytelling uses the respective strengths of verbal and non-verbal channels to multiply impact with rational and emotional messages that support each other.

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Shielding customers from choice

noun_choice_1714276It’s easy to believe that choice is a good thing for customers.

Doesn’t it stand to reason that more choice means that each customer will be better able to find something that meets their particular needs?

Customers hate choice.

Why? Because choice means thinking, and we avoid that whenever we can (as behavioural economics has proven over and over again).

I was put in mind of this by the latest McDonalds ad campaign, entitled “Grown Up“. In it we see a father and his little girl enjoying a day together, capped of (of course) by a trip to the golden arches.


Once there, dad is totally flummoxed by the new ordering screens, and his daughter steps in to show him what’s what, followed by the caption “The moment they surprise you”.


Dad’s slight bemusement is a familiar feeling for a lot of parents, watching their kids instantly intuit how to use the latest dizzyingly complex technology.

It must also be a sign, I think, the McDonalds has been getting some feedback that its ordering screens are not seen as easy to use. Why not? I suspect because there are simply too many choices.

The choices aren’t new, but customers used to be shielded from them by staff.

One of the big customer experience challenges for organisations, as self-serve and digital journeys become more common, is how to preserve flexibility without overloading customers with choice. In many cases, AI offers a possible solution. More often, we’d be better off simplifying the journey with sensible (and popular) defaults.

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Leadership: from good to great

noun_248063Gianandrea Noseda is one of the world’s leading conductors, acquiring a reputation for revitalising and improving orchestras.

This Economist article looks at his recent work as music director at Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra (NSO), which he joined last year. It has some valuable lessons about leadership and transformation.

The Economist quotes Noseda on what he is trying to achieve:

“You have to make the musicians feel that they’re burning in their hearts and souls.”

That sounds very romantic and artistic, doesn’t it? How does he do it?

“…you don’t get there through philosophy, but through rehearsals.”

Inspiring ambition, coupled with pragmatism and hard work, is his secret. I suspect that’s a recipe that would work just as well for any leader who wants culture change to deliver tangible benefits.

As the Economist observes,

“…being great, rather than merely good, matters…a reputation for greatness attracts better musicians and larger audiences…”

Vision and execution are equally important, and coupled together they can create a culture of excellence which is self-reinforcing and delivers increasing financial rewards. We could all do with a dose of Noseda from time to time.


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Measuring emotion


Is it possible to measure emotion?

I don’t think so, at least not with a survey. Emotions are largely unconscious and experienced in the moment; asking customers to accurately remember and score them after the event misrepresents the nature of emotions.

That doesn’t mean we should give up on the idea of trying to understand emotions. Here are some tactics we can try…

Qualitative research

Qualitative research is all about trying to build up a picture of how customers think and feel, and the context that shapes that. Emotions, as we saw in a previous post, are a vital part of the picture.

The mistake people often make is thinking that qualitative research is about what customers say. It’s not, it’s about why they said it. Good qualitative research digs beneath the surface to understand the deep psychological needs and reasons for customers’ behaviour, thoughts, and feelings. That’s where the emotions sit.

How do we do that? It starts by asking probing questions, but ultimately it means we need to add a layer of interpretation; so qualitative research is never entirely objective. To counteract the subjectivity of interpretation, we can turn to established models.

Models to interpret

In her excellent book “MindFrames“, Wendy Gordon outlines 6 distinct lenses we can use when trying to make sense of what customers say, based on decades of practice. This is a good example of a tendency that all qualitative researchers have to build up mental models to help them translate from what customers say and do in order to understand why.

Good researchers keep up to date with what the cognitive sciences have to tell us about how the human mind works, looking for ways to translate that into the messy real world of customer experience.

Measurement (not questions)

What about measurement? Why can’t we take something like Plutchik’s list of basic emotions and ask customers to score them on a scale? There’s nothing stopping you from trying, but I don’t believe it often works. Introspection is a terrible tool for understanding our unconscious mind, and you’ll find that a few easy to articulate emotions such as “anger” dominate.

So what can we do?

  • Focus on causes and outcomes. Qualitative work can highlight which events and behaviours cause emotions, and which outcomes derive from them. Those are often easier to measure quantitatively.
  • Interpret. Know that what customers say is not always the true cause. If they give a low score for waiting times, understand that anxiety may well be the real problem.
  • Use non-survey methods. Sometimes it’s possible to measure emotion in the moment, without asking customers directly. IDEO’s laugh detector is a good example of this.
  • Quantify verbatims. Customers usually reveal more about their emotions in their verbatim comments. It’s relatively easy to find (or build) dictionaries that will score comments for emotion. This works to a point, but be aware that you are only working at the surface level of what customers say, not at the deeper level of why.

The future for emotions

The latest scientific evidence suggests that emotions may be less innate, less universal, and less monolithic than they feel to us. Lisa Feldman Barrett in “How Emotions are Made” says:

“…your emotions are not built-in but made from more basic parts. They are not universal but vary from culture to culture. They are not triggered; you create them. They emerge as a combination of the physical properties of your body, a flexible brain that wires itself to whatever environment it develops in, and your culture and upbringing, which provide that environment.”

That points us even more firmly away from trying to measure them in any straightforward way.






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Don’t you owe customers a reply?


I was chatting to a taxi driver on the way to see a client the other day, and he asked  what I do.

I explained that I help companies understand their customers.

“You mean you send out those surveys that I never answer?”

It’s a depressingly common reaction. If people are to be believed, it’s a miracle that we manage to persuade anyone to take part in our research.

My taxi driver went on to explain why:

“There’s no point because they never reply to you, however much time you take explaining how you feel, or how the service could have been better.”

I think that’s a really interesting perspective. For our business to business clients, it’s normal to respond to customers individually based on their answers. You need to learn general lessons, sure, but you also need to address individual concerns and show that you value their feedback.

What about business to consumer clients? We usually recommend a “hot alert” system, passing on any customers with a burning issue for the client to resolve, but that’s not what the taxi driver was talking about.

He was talking about the lack of respect customer satisfaction surveys often show for customers, asking them to spend 10 minutes to submit carefully considered responses…which are then aggregated into a mass for impersonal analysis.

I think he’s right, we owe customers more than that.

If we’re worried about falling response rates (as we should be) then we need to do something about it. I suggest starting with a simple promise…

If you complete a satisfaction survey for us, and you want a personal response, you’ll get one.

For anyone who really cares about what their customers think I can’t see any reason you wouldn’t want to do it, and I’m willing to bet it would improve your response rate.


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