Social Instincts

It's funny - but last night I was measuring and blogging about the social instinct of bees, at the same time watching the live annoucements from the Facebook 2011 F8 developers' conference - the main theme, of course, the social graph.

There are interesting times ahead.

The social graph, in a nutshell, is a conceptual map of all the people and things that are socially connected to each other. The people you friend with, the brands you follow, the things you 'Like' all build out this graph. It's unique to you and some would argue, it pretty much defines you.

Over the years, behind the scenes Facebook has been building out ways for this graph to grow, by increasing the range of things that can be added to it. At first it only contained people - "Friends". The big change was to introduce the "Like" concept - now status updates, announcements, media, "pages", brands and so on could be added to your graph. It exploded.

Sadly, while Facebook was plotting world domination of social information, it wasn't paying quite as much attention to the user experience. Access to these features were being bolted onto the user interface bit by bit in a myriad of apparently disconnected functionality. The latest additions to the facebook experience, the "live stream" window alongside the "news feed" seems to have tipped the balance in terms of user horror; for every one person I hear say they like it, I hear four say they don't. Ouch.

Fast forward.

Behind the scenes Facebook has continued plotting its world domination of social graph data, starting from the ground up with a taxonomy that allows them to model and capture the data in many more orders of magnitude. In simple English, this means they'll be able to let you not just "like" things, but capture data about any activity you do, such as watch you read, listen to, watch, eat etc. You can see where this is going. The apps and applications that you use to go about your daily life with be "socially" connected and have the ability to log everything you do.

You are either going to love it or hate it or be completely scared by it, but it's going to happen.

This mass of data on the input side needs a way to be viewed and this is where Facebook have finally put some deeper thought into the user exerience and, I think, played something of a trump card.

First, they are encapsulating all the data about you as a person - your profile - in a timeline. A dynamic, living timeline that can extend back to the year you were born. It's organised in time order so that you have (if you want) a complete story of your life, based on all the things you do and document (from the trivial to the lifechanging), all the photos you upload and so on. Importantly, it can be curated easily, so that you can keep the important stuff and remove the things that shouldn't be seen.

What's more, applications can be embedded in this timeline. For example, I have electronic weighing scales that automatically capture my weight data and store it online where I can see my history and progress. The viewer application for these scales could be embedded in my timeline in a small window, so that at-a-glance I, or anyone I choose to share it with, can see the chart of my last year's weight loss. While you may question how useful this is, it serves to illustrate the concept and demonstrate how connected and "social" our worlds can become.

That, of course, is only half the equation - the timeline is a view of the profile, and the profile is an inward looking view of one person. The other half is the outward looking view of who and what that person is connected to. This is where some of the latest concepts Facebook has been rolling out come into play.

Social data will need to be classified into importance and relevance. This is a huge challenge to automate, although Facebook has continually been attempting it and will continue to do so. My weight data is pretty unimportant and irrelevant to most people, except me. It shouldn't be appearing in their stream everytime I get on the scales, even if it is logged to my profile. But other status updates are highly newsworthy: moving house, getting married, births, deaths, career successes and so on.

Facebook will (and is) splitting data into two types of stream.

First: the transient, real-time, 'socially' generated data - such as what I'm listening to right now, what I just photographed, what I'm watching. It's calling this "serendiptious" data and sticking it in the "ticker" that appears along side the main stream. This gives users an unobtrusive view of realtime activity of friends and (here's the new bit) the ability to join in. You might, for example, see your friend playing a new music track you've not heard, click on it, and immediately start listening in sync. In fact, for music, this concept is being touted as the next big thing to drive music discovery and grow the music industry.

Second: the newsworthy, interesting, 'sticky', non-realtime information - such as news stories, important events in people's lives, updates on items of special interest. This is your more-classic "wall" or news-feed, designed to filter out all the low-level noise. You'll be able to control what type of things you see in there (as indeed you can to a degree now) and as you extend your social graph (e.g. by liking and interacting with things), Facebook will get better at learning what it should show you.

The future

When you look at all these components in totality, you can see that Facebook has been dabbling round the edges with this, trying to patch up its broken User Interface/Experience and get to grips with these concepts. Finally, it seems to have taken a step back and started from the ground up to build the next era of social connectedness.

There are definitely some exciting concepts in there that not only play to the apparent social desire in human beings, but perhaps to a degree drive them too, by encouraging users to connect all their activity back to the Facebook "mothership". Certainly this will continue to raise alarm bells for those concerned with privacy and Facebook's attempt to monopolise this whole space.

For me, however, I'm delighted to see that a whole load of design thought has gone into the underlying concepts, information architecture and (if the presentations are to be believed) the user experience. It even helps just to understand the motivation and aspirations of what Facebook is doing here in order to get a handle on what you can expect to do with it and how to be able to use it. I think to date much of that has been lacking.

Whether you consider this as radical and groundbreaking as the pre-hype led us to believe is a moot point, but it is certainly taking our social instincts to the next level. Is that good or bad? Like all things, I suspect that is going to depend on how you use it.

..On Self-Service technologies

I found an old interview I'd done with Contact Centre World back in 2005 about self-service technologies (while I was at BT). Everything that was said then is just as relevant today.

Nik Sargent - Self-Service Product Manager, BT On Self-Service Technologies

What do you think are the three biggest mistakes managers make when choosing a self-service technology?
A common mistake is getting too bogged down in the technology. It's important to remember that the technology is a means to an end, a way of delivering a better service to customers. The three most important things to consider are usability, usability and usability. It is also important to have a framework that can grow and adapt with your business without holding you back. But that's as much about your people and processes as it is the technology.

In your opinion, what criteria should be used when evaluating different self-service solutions?
It's easy to be lured by cost alone, both in terms of cost of the solution and the promise of cost savings.  This should absolutely be part of the decision-making process, but it's also necessary to understand that your self-service solution is an important customer touchpoint: it can win and lose customers for you.

From a service point of view, how are you going to be able to deliver a slick customer experience: is designing this your core business, or do you need to buy this in? What flexibility will you have to modify your solution as your business evolves – and who will ensure your service works as well after it is changed as it did on day one? From a technology point of view, are you getting robustness and flexibility to shrink and grow and handle the volume you need to? If customers like your solution, then they will start to depend on it.

Within the next five years, which self-service technology do you think will have the biggest impact on the contact centre industry?
Speech Recognition will have a huge impact. Adoption rates of the technology are steadily increasing and organisations are seeing significant benefits. The availability of mass-scale solutions demonstrates that the technology is totally viable, and also educates the public about these types of services and how to use them. As we have seen, anything that can transform the cost base of the contact centre industry – such as outsourcing – can have a big impact, and Speech Recognition fits this profile.

What types of questions do you believe online self-service technologies should be able to answer?
I think the days of the Internet solely being a glorified brochure-publishing medium are over. Users are increasingly savvy and looking for more. What organisations shouldn't forget is that consumers are using this medium to educate themselves and to ask and answer complex questions. As a result, consumers that call your organisation may actually have more knowledge than some of your employees, which then results in frustration and wasted cost.

Traditionally, self-service only catered for the "average" consumer, yet the technology can now segment and analyse customers to provide personalised experiences. This is a major boost for companies that want to offer a more comprehensive web service. For example, if I'm looking for car insurance, but cannot get an answer online because there is no way to ask if my particular circumstances are covered, I will have to revert to speaking to an agent. This costs the organisation a series of calls that could have been answered online, and costs me my "web discount" – so effectively results in a lost sale.

What do self-service technologies aim to accomplish?
From a user's point of view, self-service should be simple, speedy and satisfying.  From our own personal experiences we know this is what makes for a good self-service experience, be it a vending machine, a cash machine or a telephone transaction. From a service provider's point of view, self-service technologies shouldn't divert you from your core business – they are a means of extending your customer touch points to offer choice, capacity, flexibility and reduce costs. A good self-service solution reduces costs, but a great one also delivers a rewarding and effective user-experience.

How can a contact centre utilise its self-service technology to increase contact centre capacity?
It's about finding the right business processes, or parts of them, that are simple and repetitive enough to automate, and driving volume through this. This might be self-evident for certain businesses, but for complex technologies like speech recognition it usually needs an expert to analyse processes.

The important thing to realise is that a self-service channel and an agent are not the same thing, and do different tasks differently. Rather than using self-service to try and fully replicate your agents and create capacity that way, have it do the tasks that it is suited to, and take those tasks away from agents in their entirety. This changes the balance of how your run your contact centre, and the roles agents perform – to get maximum value from them.

Once again, it's about having a user-centric view. Getting it wrong can end up generating more work for your contact centre. This was one of the great "shocks" of the web for early adopters – they ended up generating even more support calls.  Businesses should also tread carefully when thinking about forcing customers to use a self-service solution. This means you may take your eye off the usability ball, and in the long run this could backfire. On the other hand, a well-designed solution will have customers sailing through it and completing tasks that used to require an agent. If you can automate 30 seconds of a 2-minute call, then you've effectively increased your capacity by 30%.

Facebook's left hand is shooting itself in the foot...

In a spate of recent "improvements" (panic in reaction to Google+ ?) Facebook has basically constructed itself a Winchester Mystery House.

For those unfamiliar with the property, it is a sprawling tangle of construction, that during the lifetime of its owner was in a continual state of unplanned extension


I love this quote from its Wikpedia entry:

The Queen Anne Style Victorian mansion is renowned for its size and utter lack of any master building plan.

I may be being a little unfair to Facebook. I'm sure that in a smoky dark room somewhere there is someone with a vision, even if it's simply to "copy everything twitter and Google Plus does".

The end result, however, is not good, not from a user experience point of view. Users have become frustrated over the years with Facebook's incremental meddling with the user interface and experience and lack of explanation of what it delivers/provides (e.g. security controls). The chaotic array of controls and lack-lustre attitude to user privacy has become the standing joke of Facebook.

Despite shuffling some of those controls around into marginally more cohesive buckets, it seems Facebook still hasn't really learnt any lessons. The latest barrage of changes are being thrust on users at a bewildering pace with absolutely no justification in the users' eyes. A few "tool tips" over new features by way of explanation and training and it's back slapping all round at Facebook for another Google+ feature ripped from cyberspace and planted haphazardly in the Facebook workflow.

Facebook is missing some core principles, the kind of principles that drive good user interface design, good user experience and aid technology adoption.

Firstly, it does not, or seems not to consult users. The latest swathe of features are most obviously a reaction to the innovation over at Google Plus and as such has probably been thrown together at Facebook in a blind panic. Users have not been asked whether they want or need these features and what seems distinctly lacking is any study or research into how they should be smoothly integrated into the whole user experience. The reality is, they are not. A typical facebook page is now an eye-watering explosion of streams, memes and unrelated themes. It's ghastly. Users are not bought into it, users are confused by it, the senses are cluttered by it: 3 basic errors in one fell swoop.

Secondly, the meta-model, mental-map, mental-model, metaphor (or whatever you want to call it) for the information structure it is a complete mystery to the average user. It was never that great to begin with, but at least with a model of "friends", "networks" and "lists" you had some idea where your information came and went. Facebook has been so busy bolting on copied concepts to this model, that it has lost all connection with reality and any hope of being understood by the average human being. I doubt even a paint-by-numbers visualisation of it permanently stuck to the wall would help much. 

The information model has been sticking-plastered time and time again, to now also include "subscriptions" (i.e. twitter-style following of anyone); classifcation of updates into pre-defined types ("important", "most", "life events"); classifcation of users ("friends", "acqaintances", "restricted") - nowhere have I seen a model of how all this inter-relates; and more importantly, a slick visual tool to control it.

Compare this with Google Plus - built from the ground up with a simple information model: Circles. You control who you publish to by modelling your contacts on a concept we are all familar with in the real world: different circles of friends and acquaintances.

In contrast, facebook has welded together both subscription control models (e.g. I follow you, and I only want to see your life event updates) with publishing control models (e.g. This is only intended for my family) and overlays all of that with its own filtering, ranking and sorting framework. Finally, it splatters it all over your web page. Consequently it's practically impossible to figure out who will see what and very hard and time consuming to get to grips with what all the various settings should be to suit your needs.   

This level of confusion and complexity raises the barriers for users: it increases their effort requirements, it lowers their understanding of benefit. Both these factors are key elements of recognised technology adoption models, serving to reduce the likelihood of adoption, or drive defection.

While Facebook thinks it may be defending itself from the challenge of Google Plus with the right hand, chances are the left hand is shooting itself in the foot.


Things You Should Know About People: Cognitive “Loads” Are The Most “Expensive”

You are paying bills at your online banking website. You have to think about what bills need to be paid when, look up your balance, decide how much to pay on your credit cards, and push the right buttons to get the payments processed. As you do this task, you are thinking and remembering (cognitive),  looking at the screen (visual), and pressing buttons, typing, and moving the mouse (motor).

In human factors terminology these are called “loads”. The theory is that there are basically three different kinds of demands or loads that you can make on a person: Cognitive (thinking and remembering), Visual, and Motor.

Not all the loads are equal....

[continue reading]

User-Led Innovation Can't Create Breakthroughs; Just Ask Apple and Ikea

The user is king. It’s a phrase that’s repeated over and over again as a mantra: Companies must become user-centric. But there’s a problem: It doesn’t work. Here’s the truth: Great brands lead users, not the other way around.

The Apple and IKEA way

Take Apple. One evening, well into the night, we asked some of our friends on the Apple design team about their view of user-centric design. Their answer? “It’s all bullshit and hot air created to sell consulting projects and to give insecure managers a false sense of security. At Apple, we don’t waste our time asking users, we build our brand through creating great products we believe people will love."

[read more]

The trouble with marketing...

Personally I think that traditional marketing techniques, such as a direct mail, are getting well past their sell-by date. It probably happened for me about 15 years ago, but I know for others it varies.

I was amused this morning to receive some direct mail from my favourite coffee company. Aside from anything else it contained a fairly well disguised and weak promotion: free shipping for larger orders (they already offer half-price). Certainly not enough to tempt me off the sofa.

But more noteworthy was the fact they had obvisously gone to some lengths to profile me and figure out the pattern of my recent orders, and come back at me with an attempt to change that behaviour (i.e. spend more). You see, what's happened, is I've been ordering a lot of decaff. Mainly decaff in fact.

So, some bright spark has come up with a database query to spot this and created a campaign to tempt me back into ordering all the other coffees they have. Nice campaign it is too - lots of plush brochureware and a well-thought-out approach to explaining and grouping all their coffee blends and flavours and so on. Almost good enough to lick.

It's all very admirable, all very expensive, all very nicely done and I'm sure there has been much back-patting over how cleverly targetted this campaign is - as if it's just for me, the decaffoholic.

But the problem is, it won't change a thing about my behaviour: it won't achieve its objective or call to action. So why on earth not?

Because they haven't asked me why I'm ordering decaff all the time. They haven't understood my motivation and needs. They haven't understood why I'm going to keep doing the same thing regardless.

And that's the problem with these traditional marketing approaches: there's no feedback loop. Marketers tend to observe a consumer behaviour pattern (to a greater or lesser degree of granularity, refinement and sophistication) and make some assumptions about what's going on and how to change it.

Get that assumption wrong and you've wasted your time and effort. It never ceases to amaze me the time, effort and cost organisations plough into this type of marketing with such little return and reward. Not to mention the carbon footprint. It's so easy now to engage with most consumers, it ought to be the mainstream approach and yet we are still in an age where the organisations that engage more intimately with consumers (over, for example, social media channels) are still heralded as trailblazers and innovators.

Barely a day goes by without my twitter stream being inundated of reports from "social media conferences" reporting the latest exciting trends and ingenius developments in social marketing and branding. And yet in reality, this is schoolboy stuff - this pares down to long-established simple concepts, such as good customer experience, meeting the customer where they're at, engagement on appropriate channels.

What the new tools and new-connected-world order offers marketers is the chance to engage one-on-one with their customers and, for the first time, to properly listen - i.e. complete the feedback loop. Have conversation, not broadcast. And yet so few organsiations seemed to have grasped these basic ideas that the social media industry feels compelled to slap the backs of those that have and do "get it". What they (and we as consumers) should be doing is kicking the backsides of those that don't! 

Instead, I'll be making one extra trip to the recycling centre and ordering my decaff as usual.

You really should probe me more...

I recently had cause to contact my corporate credit card provider due to a late charge I incurred. No names mentioned, but they're pretty big in the corporate card business.

I won't even begin to go into how the late charge occurred as that was to do with a whole load of crazy processes for claiming back expenses - I'll save that piece of analysis for another day.

What surprised me about this particular interaction was that there were no questions asked (by the agent). Within 10 seconds the representative had cancelled the objectionable charge. Brilliant!

If there was any complaint to be levelled, it was that he didn't really explain the implications (if any) of doing so - for example, I had been told earlier that you had an allowance of once for this goodwill gesture. I.e. don't make a habit of incurring late charges. (I don't intend to. Whether the expenses claim process will live up to this is another matter.)

What pleased me even more was the customer survey form that came through afterwards.

It contained the usual stuff about how I rated the transaction. That of course is the bit that is least useful for driving out any failure in the organisation. If you just ask how the transaction with the agent went, then what you find out is they are very good at handling failure, but you never find out why the failure is occuring.

So, I was even more pleased to see that the survey also asked me how many attempts it had taken to get my enquiry resolved. This is a good start, because the organisation at least has the chance of learning a few new things:

1) That this agent actually finally SOLVED the problem for me, it having been unsolved previously. He deserves special credit for that. Solve-rate is a really key concept for organisations, especially contact centres, for understanding customer experience, failure modes and performance. Few measure it.

2) By understanding that this call was part of a sequence of interactions, the organisation can see that failure occurred somewhere else in the process previously. They can begin to look at the root causes of that failure and start to address it.

However, where this survey fell down and really missed a trick, was in asking me about that sequence of events. My last call occurred, not because the previous call was unsatisfactory or didn't resolve my problem - indeed, to all intents and purposes, the original call did solve my problem. So, on the surface it looks like I have two completely satisfactory calls with the organisation. How, then, can there be any sense of failure? Surely if we look at this chain of interaction, it will come out as first class?

The reason is, that the first call made a promise about something that would happen and then it didn't happen. The first call apparently resolved the problem, but then something broke and it never followed through.

Sadly, said organisation are going to struggle to decode this because they haven't asked whether the failure was in the ability of the representative to solve my problem, or with a behind-the-scenes process issue. That one single question could tell them whether their efforts need to go into improving the performance of their individual agents, or whether they need to look at system and process failings.

This again is another classic case of "you get what you measure". (I.e. The world takes on the shape of the window you view it through.) Because they are measuring my interaction in terms of the experience with the representative, my survey response is going to imply that the first representative did not perform satisfactorily. This is in fact untrue, the first agent was superb too. It was something unseen in the background that went wrong.

So, sadly, by questioning me in the way they have done, they've set themselves off in the wrong direction, looking at agent performance, rather than systemic and process failure. Shame, it could have been so easy.

Let that be a lesson to all who design customer surveys.

How to view everything you've "liked" on Facebook...

So, Facebook is constantly updating it's interface, so as of 2013 the system has changed. Follow the instructions below.  

  1. Click / tap the little wheel icon in top right...
  2. Choose Privacy Settings
  3. In  "Who Can see my stuff" choose "use activity log"..
  4. Review what you've liked, and if necessary, unlike the posting.

The original article, for reference is below: 

You need to go to

Edit Profile [here's the first mistake, I don't want to edit anything, I want to view]
Activities and Interests
Show Other Pages

and you'll be presented with a tincy wee pop-up box with a massive scrolling list that you can't sort or can't search or can't filter.

What you'll also notice here in that entire chain of action, there is no mention of the word 'like'. I.e. the very action you took to create this list. How is the busy user meant to even begin to connect the two halves: creating their 'likes' and maintaining their 'likes'?

Really, I've rarely seen anything so ridiculous in a user interface - but of course, Facebook is the master of the unintelligible interface! And to make matters worse, it can't even stop meddling.

Seriously, Facebook, if you're hiring I'll come and sort it for you. You know what, I might even do it for free. We'll start with a few simple use cases and a little understanding of some users tasks, and we'll actually build the interface around what users actually want to do. Voila!

Why focus-groups suck

I've just taken part in a focus group and been rewarded fairly handsomely for my trouble. It was fun, I got heard, and I know exactly how the report is going to turn out. 

It was about the local railway station, propensity to use it and what needs to be done to improve it to generate more usage.

Well, you see, therein lies the first problem: a hypothesis from the researchers (or more likely, clients) that colours the entire line of questioning and expectation, even subconsciously. I can think of a dozen ways to improve the station, but not a single one of them will make me use it more - I use it based on need and suitability for my trip; and frankly, the presence of a self-service under-arm-sweetening pie machine won't change my need

I also had to remind the researchers that the intent of their question mattered. For example, their original framework was what would stimulate us users to use it more. But towards the end of the session this has drifted into "what improvements should be made and how urgently". Well, for whose benefit? I had to challenge those who said that improved tropical spa waiting facilities would be wonderful for people having to change trains here on their journey through. Sure, but will it change what you do.

And then there was the final round of conclusion making - that wonderful concept, the consensus. Yep that mythical creature that finds its way into so many wayward decisions and ill-informed conclusions.

There is no such thing as a consensus. Repeat after me. Altogether now (geddit?)

What there is, is a group of individual needs and opinions, half of which conflict. Trying to find a consensus is like trying to shove 18 bowls of fruit into a rucksack: it will still come out rucksack shaped, if a little sticky and damp. 

Unsurprisingly, most recommendations came out A1 - high priority, now! (can you have A3? High priority, any time next decade?). Apart from being fed "medium" as the starting point on most issues, in order to achieve consensus the baseline was taken from the first person who spoke, until basically everyone nodded. Because, of course, if you don't all nod, you don't have a consensus

Seriously, this will tell the client nothing useful about true need and what response they will generate by 'responding' to it. They will get a list where everything from a new information poster to a £30 million refurbishment are all urgently needed to turn the place round. 

Go on, stick a semi-automatic hair-cutting shoe-polishing machine on the platform if you like, but I'll still be working in the Atlantis end of outer Timbuktu, so I'll still be driving there, nowhere near your spangly half-empty railway station. 

(The cash in the envelope was all right though.)