Tag Archives: service design

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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Why customer emotions matter

noun_1325508Emotions have a big role in the decisions we make.

Our brains work by taking in information about the world, processing it, and responding in appropriate ways.

There are 2 separate systems at work. Different authors call these the “Low road” and the “High road”, “System 1” and “System 2”, or “Hot” and “Cold”.

They all basically make the same point—unconscious decision-making is quicker and easier, so we tend to trust it rather than making the cognitive effort to think consciously1.

Emotions are a special category of unconscious decision making oriented towards avoiding damage (fear, disgust) or getting something we want (joy, anger). They are, to quote the MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences,

“A process that functions in the management of goals.”

It follows that emotions are important for anyone who wants to understand the customer experience or purchasing decisions, but emotions don’t factor equally in all decisions. We rely on emotions when there isn’t much perceived differentiation between suppliers. This is something David Ogilvy knew…

“The greater the similarity between products, the less part reason plays in brand selection…”

David Ogilvy

…and which research has confirmed. The research also helps to quantify which types of products tend to be a more emotional or more rational purchase decision (there are some examples in the diagram below). Emotion vs Reason3

Relative importance of emotion and reason2

When it comes to the customer experience, it turns out that emotion totally trumps reason. A good example is waiting times—it’s the quality of the wait that matters, not the quantity. Customers don’t evaluate the length of the wait rationally, they respond emotionally to how long it feels.

Designing experiences that create the right emotions is what sets great organisations apart from others whose products and services are just as good in purely functional terms. To do that, we need to understand customer emotions and what shapes them.

Is it possible to measure customer emotions? Maybe, but that’s a post for another day…

  1. Kahneman’s “Thinking fast and slow” is the must-read in this area.
  2. Adapted from A. Chaudhuri “Emotion and Reason in Consumer Behaviour


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User stories & customer journey mapping

noun_1213168A big mistake that many organisations make when they try to map the customer journey is that they stick too close to their own perspective.

The result may be a customer view of their process map, but it’s not a true customer journey map.

Why not? The tell-tale problems are:

  • Too much detail
  • Ignoring context in customer’s life
  • Focused on products, processes & touchpoints
  • Starting too late in the journey
  • Finishing too early in the journey

How can we overcome this tendency to let the inside-out view dominate? The best way is to use qualitative research and allow customers to lead the creation of the journey map.

User stories are a really useful tool to make sure you approach the journey with the right mindset. They’re normally written in the form

As a__________ I want to__________in order to__________.

Doing this will allow you to stretch your view of the journey, so that you start when the customer became aware of their need, not when they first got in touch with you. This more accurately reflects the customer experience, and opens up opportunities for innovation.

It also puts the customer’s goal (not your product) front and centre. This helps you to make sure that the experience you design is addressing the right problem, and opens you up to the possibility of solving it in new ways.

“People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole.”

—Theodore Levitt

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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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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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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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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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The best design advice

noun_62505While having a bit of a clear-out of my desk at work, I found this snippet I’d saved.

“No one gets it right the first time.”

It’s from a very short answer Dan Saffer gave when asked for the best design advice he’d ever had, and I think it applies to pretty much anything. The advice came from Marc Rettig.

It’s deceptively simply, and dangerously easy to forget.

The things we admire—whether they’re charts, infographics, presentations, photographs, websites, songs—rarely appear fully-formed in the mind of a genius.

What we see is the final version. Maybe it’s version 2, but more likely it’s version 42.

One could argue that professionalism, or craft, is about honing the process of getting from first draft to final product in the fewest possible steps.

The art is learning to enjoy the process as much as the outcome.

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