The power of metaphors

noun_93083Customer Journey Mapping is, as I tell delegates on my course, just a metaphor.

Then again, the Beatles were “just a band” (at least according to Scroobius Pip).

Metaphors can be incredibly powerful, but also incredibly useful. They help us to understand each other, to reason about things, and to get things done.

To quote the classic Metaphors We Live By:

“…the way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.”

One of the lessons of the book is about the “conduit metaphor” of communication (that our language is a container into which we put meaning for others to extract). This is important because it supports uses of language which don’t make much sense from a purely logical point of view (e.g. the metaphor “more of form is more of content” leads to phrases such as “he is very very very tall”, which we all understand to imply intensification).

The metaphors we use have an impact on what we think and do. What if we choose a different metaphor? In a classic paper, Michael Reddy suggests that a “toolmaker’s paradigm” would be more helpful, underpinning the importance of mutual effort to communicate ideas effectively. As he says in the paper:

“Human communication will almost always go astray unless real energy is expended” 

These metaphors are normally applied to language, but a similar approach could be taken to visual communication. In a fascinating post, Robert Kosara critiques the “Encoding-Decoding” paradigm for data visualisation.

It’s fairly clear that just like the useful, but flawed, conduit metaphor for language, there may be more than one metaphor for how visual communication works. Kosara explains how people actually read visualisations:

“What do we decode? We like to assume that decoding just reverses the encoding: we read the values from the visualization. But not only don’t we do that, we do many other things that are surprisingly poorly understood.”

In other words, the conduit metaphor for dataviz tends to overlook the active role of the person reading it. Studying how people actually use visualisations may help us to build a better metaphor.

Storytelling and visual communication is not a one-way act – we need a metaphor to reflect the active role of our audiences. 

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Hans Rosling: a great data storyteller

gapminderI was sad to hear, yesterday, that Hans Rosling had passed away.

For anyone interested in telling stories with data, he was an inspiration and an example.

His videos use a lively combination of data, innovative visualisation, and passionate argument. This is one of my favourites: 200 years that changed the world.

The mission he, Ola, and Anna set themselves at Gapminder was to combat ignorance with data; to discover where knowledge gaps exist, and to attack them with fact. He tended to underestimate the importance of his own charm and storytelling skill in engaging the audience not just with the data, but with its significance.

In a world in which news feels increasingly negative, dominated by assertion and prejudice over fact, Hans Rosling was a tremendous force for good. He made us see and acknowledge the progress that has been and is being made.

We could all do with being a bit more like Hans Rosling.


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Personas should be portraits, not caricatures

noun_202420Personas are an essential tool when using qualitative research with the customer experience, particularly for journey mapping.

It’s easy to forget the customer as we move from using insight to understand their feelings to a more internal view planning improvements.

Personas help us keep customer needs and motivations front of mind, and preserve the nuances and variety we found with the research.

Can you feel a “but” coming?

You’re right, there’s a big danger with personas that we slide from representing diversity to drawing crude stereotypes. Think in terms of archetypes and range rather than clusters or types.

Good personas are:

  • Grounded in research
  • Archetypes, not stereotypes or clichés
  • Defined by motivations and needs more than demographics
  • Used to challenge process, not put people in boxes

I think there’s a simple test that captures all of these: personas should increase your flexibility in dealing with individual customers, not reduce it.

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From drivers to design thinking

networkDriver analysis is great, isn’t it? It reduces the long list of items on your questionnaire to a few key drivers of satisfaction or NPS. A nice simple conclusion—”these are the things we need to invest in if we want to improve”.

But what if it’s not clear how to improve?

Often the key drivers turn out to be big picture, broad-brush, items. Things like “value” or “being treated as a valued customer” which are more or less proxies for overall satisfaction. Difficult to action.

Looking beyond key drivers, there’s a lot of insight to be gained by looking at how all your items relate to each other, as well as to overall satisfaction and NPS. Those correlations, best studied as either a correlogram (one option below) or network diagram (top right) can tell you a lot, without requiring much in the way of assumptions about the data.
In particular, examining the links between specific items can support a design thinking approach to improving the customer experience based on a more detailed understanding of how your customers see the experiences you create.

Your experiences have a lot of moving parts—don’t you think you ought to know how they mesh together?

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The Graphic Gameplan

noun_75258My job is to give clients actionable insight about their customers.

“Actionable insight”—what a dreadful phrase! Can we make it a bit less management speak?

My job is to help clients understand what their customers want so that they can do a better job of giving it to them.

The trouble is that understanding is only the first step. If we stop at understanding we’re likely to do more harm than good. I like to quote Bruce Lee:

“Knowing is not enough; we must apply.

Willing is not enough; we must do.”

Bruce Lee

So how do we turn our knowledge about customers, and our willingness to improve, into action?

You need three things: top-level commitment, buy-in from throughout the business, and ideas. To get them, you’re going to need to go further than simply presenting the results of your customer insight—you need to involve your colleagues in creating an action plan.

That means some kind of workshop. Workshops are great, but they can often be feelgood days that generate loads of ideas and enthusiasm with little in the way of concrete results.

Good workshops require structure. Build exercises to explore and generate ideas, but finish with a converging exercise in order to deliver a clear way forward. ‘Gamestorming’ is a great book I turn to when I need an exercise for a workshop.


One of my favourites for helping people move from insight to action is the “Graphic Gameplan“. The beauty of this exercise is that it forces participants to break ideas for improving the customer experience into specific actions, slotting them into a strategic timeline view. It leaves you with momentum, accountability, and a clear vision of what is happening next.

If you don’t have a gameplan for improving your customer experience, maybe it’s time to organise a workshop?

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Is it time for zero-based customer insight?

There’s a debate in marketing about the merits of zero-based budgeting.

It doesn’t necessarily mean spending less. What it does mean is figuring out, from scratch, what you need to spend in order to achieve specific returns.

Which sounds pretty sensible.

Mark Ritson discusses Unilever’s announcement that they are adopting a zero-based budgeting approach to marketing. His summary is useful:

The zero base approach is not a cost cutting method or belt-tightening approach. It’s just a better, more strategic way to plan your marketing. First you forget about the total spend and where that spend was allocated last year – hence the zero. Second, the marketing team do their research, construct their marketing plan and conclude it with a budget in which they ask for a certain amount of investment and promise a specific return for that investment. Senior management review the plan and either grant the amount or push back and ask the team to make changes.

The appeal to the business is obvious—it forces departments to be accountable for their spend, and do the work to justify it. It seems to me that we should think about working towards a zero-based model for customer insight.

Does that sound like a turkey voting for Christmas?

It might be if we all switched overnight, but I think the principle of accountability and being able to demonstrate return is important if we want customer experience to be taken seriously.

It’s important, I think, to make sure that budgeting doesn’t lead to prioritising short term returns. If a marketing team spends its budget on vouchers rather than brand-building then they’re almost guaranteed to see an impact on sales in the short term. But what’s the long term benefit?

Similarly, for customer experience, you need to understand the links between investment in particular transactional journeys and longer term customer attitudes and behaviours. The benefits can take a long time to filter through; but they’re real, and they’re measurable.

It’s up to us to start proving it.

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What can the election teach us about customers?

Once again, the pollsters got it wrong.

This article is the first of many examining the reasons why, and I’m sure we can expect another round of ferocious introspection from the polling industry.

Perhaps future polls will be more reliable.

Is there anything the rest of us can learn from what just happened? I think so, and I think there are some particularly pertinent lessons for the way we think about customers.

Margins of error matter

At the beginning of the night, it looked like a comfortable victory for Clinton, but if you examine the margins of error (as in this excellent New York Times graphic from their election forecast page) you can see that it was much less clear-cut than that.
Margins of error are not a detail for the data geeks, they tell us what we know. Make sure that when you make decisions about customers, you’re making those decisions on firm foundations.

Perception is reality

People talk about a post-truth society. The fact is that there never was a “truth society”. Perception has always been more powerful than reality in shaping the decisions that people make.

There are all sorts of psychological and social mechanisms that underpin this. Social filtering, confirmation bias, the repetition principle.These may be becoming more powerful, but they have always been there.

With customers, it makes it incredibly important to tell customers about the changes you make. It also means that managing how customers feel is more important than what you actually do. Disney’s queue management is a great example of this. The length of the wait becomes secondary if you can make waiting fun.

Focus on what matters to customers…

…and not what you think should matter to them. The only way to deliver a great customer experience is to get inside their heads and really understand them, the context in which they live, and the things that they value.

Be prepared for a shock.

Qualitative research is a great tool for understanding how your customers see the world. It can give you an incredibly rich view of the context within which your product or service features in  their lives.

Guess what? It’s less important to them than it is to you. They didn’t read that carefully crafted email you sent them. They’re probably not the mythical “brand loyalists” we all wish for, but almost no one has.

Find out what customers want, and give it to them, and you will create great customer experiences. Great experiences lead to customer loyalty, not because of who you are, but because you understand who they are.

Simple messages are powerful

The reality is that most customers don’t care very much about what you do. Their lives are busy, the perceived differentiation between you and your competitors is small, and you’re all saying the same things.

Find a way to be different.

Package it into a simple, clear, message.

Make people believe it.

If you can do that the possibility to disrupt the status quo is enormous, as both Trump and the Brexit campaign have shown this year. It’s a powerful mix, but it’s only the beginning. There’s a crucial fourth step.



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Stories are about change

noun_2005Storytelling is a favourite topic of mine.

On our storytelling workshop we go through a whole load of different ways in which organisations can use customer insight to communicate more effectively with their customers and staff.

I also try to wear a storyteller’s hat when I’m finding the best way to visualise and present data.

Why is it so effective?

There’s lots of evidence for the benefits of story. Story forces you to articulate why and how a particular course of action will work. It increases the emotional impact of research and brings customers to life. Those are important strengths, but the big one is that stories are the best way to achieve change.

Stories are all about change.

Duarte‘s useful model for the shape of an effective story makes crystal clear how fundamental change is to the argument that a storyteller is making. A good story shows our audience a future they want to achieve, contrasts that with the status quo, and shows them how to get from here to there.


Stories in fiction describe change, stories in business drive change.

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Attention: getting it, keeping it, using it

One of the excellent speakers at the MRS “Best of Impact” event yesterday was a Creative Director specialising in data visualisation and infographics.

Naturally my ears pricked up—I’m always open to stealing ideas.

As well as being a very engaging talker, Tobias Sturt was really clear on a number of important principles for infographic design based on how our brains work:

  • Symbolic processing (e.g. icons) is quicker than verbal processing, but sometimes it’s less clear.
  • Recall is influenced by colour, faces, novel chart types, quirky images, etc.

But information design is not just about effective communication. It’s also about getting, and keeping, attention. This is a crucial role for what some characterise as graphic “decoration”. “Beauty” might be a better word. It’s something that David McCandless excels at, and Stephen Few objects to.

Those of us with important customer stories to tell have learned (the hard way) that getting attention is just as important as communicating facts.

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Rules vs. Recipes – Process and Trust

noun_222171There are three types of cook…

Some people follow the recipe exactly, carefully weighing every ingredient and reading through all the instructions twice before they start.

Others use the instructions as a guide, but tweak the meal as they go by adding more of this ingredient and less of that. They might even leave out an ingredient entirely, or substitute something else.

Then there are the ones who scoff at the idea of following a recipe, and simply make it up based on instinct and experience.

Which gets the best results?

They can all work pretty well, but in my experience the most reliably good meals are the ones cooked by those who taste and make judgements as they go.

Using the recipe as a jumping-off point, rather than a rigid rulebook, allows the cook to adapt to minor differences in the size or taste of ingredients, and to cater for individual preferences. Sometimes the ones who just make it up may hit higher highs, but they also sink to much lower lows with the odd inedible disaster.

Customer service is exactly the same.

There’s nothing wrong with having a process. It’s very helpful for staff, especially the less experienced, to have a clear sense of what we’re trying to achieve and how we get there. Like a reliable recipe, a good process should give us the sense that if we follow these steps we won’t go far wrong.

But a recipe book is not a rulebook, and your processes shouldn’t be either. Good service happens when people use their judgement to make minor variations to a process if they think it will result in the best outcome for the customer.

Season to taste.

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