Tag Archives: experience design

Van Halen were design thinking pioneers

noun_106427Van Halen used to insist on a bowl of M&Ms with all the brown sweets removed as part of their rider. It’s a story often used to illustrate what absurd primadonnas they were, usually as a precursor to Dave Lee Roth smashing something up if the request wasn’t complied with.

It’s probably not the first thing that comes to mind as an example of design thinking.

According to Dave Lee Roth himself, there was method in their madness. Van Halen’s staging was huge, complex, and unusual. The demand for “M&M’s (WARNING: ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES)” appeared towards the end of a multi-page contract specifying the exact technical requirements of their stage show.

It was there as a test.

If the band arrived to discover brown M&Ms, they knew that their contract hadn’t been read properly. What else might have been missed? Were the girders strong enough? Was the floor? If the brown M&Ms were there, then there was a good chance some important, and potentially dangerous, technical errors were too.

It’s a great example of design thinking because it combines an understanding of human psychology (people are too lazy to read the contract) with an innovative solution. It’s simple, pragmatic, and effective.

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Design is calculating

shapesI’ve been reading a brilliant book called “Shape”, by George Stiny.

One of the arguments that Stiny makes is that when we design with shapes we do a kind of “visual calculating”. It’s very different from the kind of calculating that we do with numbers, but it has a validity of its own.

As one of the blurbs on the back says,

“…Stiny’s book shows us that even the simplest shape is both ambiguous and perfectly clear.”

—Jonathan Cagan

This ambiguity means, for example, that I can add a square to a square and end up with four triangles, rotate the triangles and create a square with a cross through it. That kind of visual play is easy to see, hard to explain in words, and impossible to fully describe in numbers.

I think, by analogy, something similar applies to experience design. It is the emotional heart of a customer experience which matters. Great experiences aren’t made by processes or rules (terrible ones often are), they’re a creative act of design that happens when you interact with customers and empathise deeply with what they want.

It’s almost impossible to describe this process in words or numbers, but we know it when we experience it as customers. That doesn’t mean it lacks rigour, just that it’s a different kind of logic than our models are able to capture. As Stiny says, it’s always personal.

“Seeing and saying what I see are always personal. There are no rote results, whether I copy what I see or call this something else—descriptions don’t count. My eyes have only their own way of knowing. That’s a good reason to calculate, and it’s why calculating works in design.”

—George Stiny

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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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A simple test of trust

noun_29932I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about trust recently.

While researching my talk at our client conference this year, I dug deep into different theories and models of trust. The more I dug, the more I became convinced that trust is the single most important underlying factor in almost every aspect of our working lives; as organisations, employees, and customers.

Interesting stuff.

But it’s nice to step back from the detail sometimes, and reduce all of the theory to one simple idea. As he so often does, Seth Godin nailed it, and it’s a frightening thought:

Organisations routinely lie to their customers.

Seth gives the example of “unexpectedly high call volumes”, but we could think of a thousand more. Lies that we tell customers, knowing full well that they know we’re lying.

So why are we surprised that they don’t trust us?



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Are you Sherlock or Alexander?


Cause and effect is tricky.

It’s a natural human instinct to try to understand why things happen.

In fact we can’t help ourselves—psychologists have had fun getting people to ascribe narratives, personalities, and motivations to little animated shapes.

But we also know that we can be easily fooled, and that we don’t always agree about causes.


Experiment versus observation

Scientists have developed clear formal approaches to cause and effect. The randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, trial is the gold standard.

Unfortunately it’s not always possible to use a controlled trial.

Take smoking as an example. There’s no realistic way of testing the impact of smoking on lung cancer in an experiment; but almost everyone now accepts it is a major cause.

Getting there took a lot of work, and sensible use of the “Bradford Hill” criteria for establishing causation from observational data.


Do you need to prove it?

When you use customer insight as a springboard for service design or innovation, you are making assumptions about causes. Customers feel like this because we did that. Customers would feel like this if we did that.

Often that will lead to arguments about what we should or should not do.

Sometimes it’s appropriate to prove your guesses about cause and effect beyond reasonable doubt. That takes careful, patient, detective work.

More often the most effective approach is to take a leaf out of Alexander the Great’s book, and simply cut the knot instead of untangling it.

Either way, stop debating what to do—prove it, or decide.



If the ins and outs of causality interest you, have a look at this two-part article I wrote back when I had hair:

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Design vs UX vs CX

Maybe you’ve seen one of the several versions of this photo doing the rounds? “Design” versus “User experience (UX)”.

It makes an amusing point about the fact that the user experiences we design are often different from the ones customers create for themselves.


I think there’s a bit of a trap in this way of thinking, which is to assume that users are responsible for what happens when they deviate from our design.

We shouldn’t respond to situations like this with a rueful smile and a weary shake of the head; we should be asking ourselves why it’s happened.

For one thing, it’s an opportunity to design experiences that better match customer needs, rather than trying to channel them down some pre-determined choices.

We also need to be aware that customers will hold us responsible for the choices they make. One day (sticking with the metaphor in the photo) a customer will complain to you that their shoes are muddy because they took a shortcut.

If your member of staff says “Yes, we’re sorry, let us sort them out for you. Also, we’ll try to make sure you don’t have to take that muddy shortcut again.” then you can legitimately claim customer experience (CX) maturity.

Design versus UX versus CX.

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Too early to tell or too late to change

DonkeyEdward Tufte, the “godfather of information design”, has a really interesting take on how people resist changes.

Products existed only in two states: either too-early-to-tell or too-late-to-change.

Think about some examples from your own experience, and I’m sure you’ll start to see how insightful this is.

Variations on too-late-to-change are:

  • But we’ll lose our tracking data
  • That’s what we’ve said on the website
  • Everyone else does it this way

You might see too-early-to-tell in the guise of:

  • Let’s gather another month of data before we decide
  • We’ll wait until the new director starts next month
  • That’ll be addressed by a project coming down the pipeline

The solution for both is to commit to action, now.

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Why journey mapping is an effective metaphor

In this video Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of South Park, discuss what they have learned about storytelling:


One crucial point is to avoid chaining the events of a story together with “and” (e.g. “This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened…”).

Good writing is based on events linked with “therefore” and “but”, giving them a strong narrative drive. Garr Reynolds analyses the video with some great extra commentary.

This is one of the reasons customer journey mapping is such an effective tool. It forces us to acknowledge flow and dependency (i.e. “therefore”). It also makes lets us examine the points of pain which can derail a whole experience (i.e. “but”).

Customer journey as storytelling

Customer journey mapping as storytelling

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On copying

Pablo Picasso said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal”.

Copying is how we learn.

It’s true when we’re children, and it stays true right throughout our lives.

As we become more expert, that copying tends to consist less of aping and more of blending diverse influences.

But it’s still fundamentally copying.

Copying allows us to explore process and understand thinking.

It lets us get under the skin of how the people we admire achieve the things they do.

Counter-intuitively, copying is a necessary part of the creative process.

Which is why a rich vein of management books has focused on showcasing successful companies.

We hope to look at what they do well, copy it, and achieve the same results.

But what if we copy the wrong things?

What if we copy how they look, rather than what they do?

That won’t work any more than sitting in a cafe with a MacBook will make you a writer.

Let’s say you want to copy the experience John Lewis creates for its customers.

Not a bad idea.

You could try to copy the partnership model.

Or maybe start calling staff “partners” without even adopting the model.

Chances are it wouldn’t work.

Better to find a way to create an experience that feels like the one they create.

Business books tend to present the one secret to success, so you only need to copy one thing.

It doesn’t really work.

Companies like John Lewis are doing a lot of different things right to create the experience they do.

The only way to understand those things properly is to copy the experiences they create.

Good companies copy, great companies steal.

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