We Can’t Predict the Future, But We Can Prepare

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Growing up in England in the ’60s, I was fascinated by a series of action-adventure TV shows produced by Century 21 Productions. The shows featured machines that traveled in space, underwater, underground and performed fantastic feats or flew at tremendous speeds.

Then in the late ’60s I came across a show called “Star Trek” — and I’ve been thinking about the future ever since.

My first job out of college was working on the Concorde supersonic passenger jet, and I also was tangentially involved with a project to design a hyper-sonic space plane.

Now here we are in the 21st century and none of that happened! 

Who Can Predict the Future?

I love living in the future, although it’s not the one I was expecting.

We may not have flying cars and jet packs, but look at what we do have.

We all walk around with a pocket sized device that connects us to the greatest repository of human knowledge in history. We can have instantaneous conversations across continents, and use that same device to take photos, watch TV and movies, store and read a library of books, access the world’s news organizations, socialize with millions of people around the world — and maybe even make the occasional phone call.

It’s a technology that no one saw coming, yet in the space of less than a decade the smart phone has changed the way we live, the way we communicate and the way we do business.

The Times They Are a Changin’

As content professionals how can we possibly predict and prepare for a change like that? The answer is that we probably can’t.

In the words of America’s newest Nobel Prize winner, Bob Dylan (and who would have predicted that?), “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?

But we can look at where today’s trends and activities are heading and extrapolate.

One of the greatest moments of realization for me around how people interacted with content was watching my then 15-year old daughter doing a homework assignment on Pearl Harbor. When I passed her a book on World War II from my history bookcase she ignored the table of contents and index and instead flicked through the pages until she found a photo she knew related to the subject she was studying. Only then did she start to read around it.

She was doing a visual search and then browsing the book like it was the web. At that point I realized that the traditional book paradigm no longer produced the user experience her generation needed.

Find the Opportunities in Developing Trends

So what’s happening now that will impact the near future? For the last decade I’ve been a big proponent of Augmented Reality (AR) as a way to communicate, engage and inform. I believe it has great potential to deliver as yet unexplored customer experiences. I think AR will win over Virtual Reality as the latter is too immersive and isolating (but I could be wrong — the future will decide).

Look at what technologies are developing and how new generations are using them. Extrapolate, and think how that will impact your business.

Don’t look for potential threats, but look for potential opportunities. It’s not about chasing the current hot gadget, the future is about recognizing change. Look outside your industry, outside your area of expertise. We need to get comfortable about being uncomfortable about new technology and trends. Study across many fields: technology, psychology, sociology, story-telling, movie-making and more.

So how do we address the challenge of mapping the future? First, learn to recognize the future, and then be prepared to adjust when the jet pack turns out to be an iPhone instead.

 

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Is Your Website a Reflection of You or Your Customers?

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Hey Dad, did you have any feedback?” That text from my daughter was part of an ongoing discussion around the website that she was designing for a new business venture that she and a partner were launching. It was the third iteration of the site, and this was the first version that was fully mobile friendly.

My feedback was that with just a few minor tweaks, this iteration was very close to where they needed to be for the launch. It told a good story and provided the basic information their customers would be looking for.

It wasn’t always the case. Early in the process of them developing a business case I asked my daughter and her business partner what they wanted the website to communicate.

The immediate response was “We want it to let people know what we do.”

A logical answer, but my response was something along the lines of “That’s great, but other people do what you do. What makes you special?”

We are focused on people with a particular problem area.”

Great. So think about the people who need help solving that problem. What are they going to be looking for?

As these sort of discussions continued, the website design and prototypes evolved from their description of what the new company did, to a series of short articles that addressed the potential customer’s problems, and how my daughter and her partner can help.

They also looked at the list of services they were offering and decided to focus on the three where they have had the most interest. Now instead of a webpage with a shopping list of things to pick from, each solution article has information about the relevant service, with pricing and contact information.

But it’s not only small businesses or start-ups that need to be switching their thinking from a website that, no matter how slick it’s presented, is little more than a digital brochure. Often these sort of “inside-out” websites end up being a reflection of the corporate structure accompanied by a list of products. Switching the mind set to a customer driven “outside-in” view can pay dividends, not only in an improved experience that can help customer’s solve their problems, but they can also have a direct impact on the company’s bottom line.

I once worked on a project for a large company whose website was a perfect reflection of their corporate and business unit structure. You had to know what part of the company was responsible for a particular product to be able to find it; even the employees had a hard time figuring out where to find information. But a customer focused analysis showed that 80% of the traffic went to the website for just four things: to look up product specifications, pricing, buy spare parts, or get support. Once we rebuilt the website around making those tasks as easy as possible, traffic, leads, and online parts sales revenue all increased, and support costs decreased.

Improving the customer experience is now regularly cited as a top strategic imperative for many companies, and the website is the always-on global showcase for that. Delivering a customer-driven web experience means not only changing the mind-set and the content, but also delivering a more engaging relevant and engaging experience that delivers value to the individual customer. It can rapidly become a complex process and needs the right sort of management tools to enable and support an effective web presence.

Ditch the FAQs: Design for a Frictionless Experience

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All I wanted was some sushi.

You wouldn’t believe how difficult it was to find out if the any of the three sushi restaurants within walking distance of my hotel were actually open.

Their websites were full of text, explaining the ambiance, the chef’s background, even the history of the restaurant (and in one case the historic building that it was located in). The pictures of neatly arranged and presented sushi rolls and specialties looked pretty and further whetted my appetite.

But they still didn’t answer my question, nor did they help me navigate the website to provide the answer to my question — is this restaurant currently open?

FAQs Don’t Make Up for a Poor Site

I eventually found the information I wanted in the Frequently Asked Questions page.

Which got me thinking: If you still have an FAQ page then it means you implicitly acknowledge that you are presenting your customers with a digital experience full of answers and information that no one wants. You are ignoring the one question that will help you optimize your customer journey.

Why do your customers come to your website, or use your mobile app, in the first place? What are they trying to achieve?

I would think for a restaurant the three main reasons that people engage online are to find out location, opening hours and menu options.

So Many Pages, So Little Useful Information

I once worked on a project for a large company whose website was a perfect reflection of its corporate and business unit structure. It had a lot of FAQ pages — each business unit had its own.

Even the employees had a hard time figuring out where to find information.

But analysis showed that 80 percent of the traffic went to the website to look up product specifications, pricing, to buy spare parts or get support. Once we rebuilt the website around making those tasks as easy as possible, traffic, leads and online parts sales revenue increased.

Structure your digital experience around supplying the critical information your customer needs in the easiest way possible, then start to optimize the details through testing.

Your Goal: A Frictionless Digital Experience

Use testing to develop a frictionless experience. Test if the text and graphics you are using help drive the experience. It doesn’t matter if picture A gets more hits than picture B if neither help drive the experience. Look at click-through rates and subsequent customer actions.

If you are using graphics to drive the experience, check to make sure that the graphics are composed and positioned to help the customer on their journey. For instance, shots which guide people’s eyes in the direction of the next call to action generate far more click-throughs than thoughtfully posed shots of smiling models looking straight out of the page.

Test to make sure that the page layouts, paths and text and graphics are market and culturally appropriate. Does the experience change based on the level of the customer engagement and where they are in their journey? Do you have your customer journey mapped out and know which parts of the digital experience map to which steps in that journey?

Remember optimizing through testing is not about A versus B — it’s about removing the friction from the experience. I don’t care if the Dragon Roll looks prettier than the California Roll if I can’t find out when you’re open for business.

 

Avoid Brand Disasters with a Visual Content Strategy

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It took a man with his sleeves rolled up to make me understand that we had a problem.

A Flawed Hero

At the time I has heading the marketing content delivery group at a major equipment manufacturer and we’d just posted a new ‘hero’ shot on our website. We were very proud of the image: a burly rugged looking guy on a job site stood in front of one our machines. A perfect illustration of our brand.

Or so we thought, until I logged in to my email the following morning to find my inbox stuffed with requests to take the image down.

Most of those emails came from one specific geographical market. What we hadn’t realized was that the burly man had his shirt sleeves rolled up, and in one of our biggest, most important, markets that was a safety violation. And safety violations were definitely not something we wanted to be seen promoting, or have associated with our brand.

The image was quickly taken down and metadata added that it wasn’t to be used in certain markets. On reflection, we should have already done this. But like many large companies we drew our content from all across the enterprise, as well as from outside suppliers and agencies.

Customers Don’t Care About Your Silos

The man in the shirt sleeves got us thinking: Did different parts of the company use different images to represent the same things based on their local and business knowledge? Did they assume an implied level of knowledge about the subject and its applicability? Did the images chosen just reflect the siloed make-up of the business’s organizational structure? How was metadata applied — if at all — to ensure correct usage and attribution?

Most importantly: how did all this affect the customer’s experience when interacting with our brand across different channels around the globe?

It doesn’t matter how your company is organized, or what separate lines of business you have. As far as your customer is concerned every interaction with you is a representation of your brand, and they expect a consistent experience. But it must also be a consistent experience that is relevant to them and their locale.

Pull Things Together With a Visual Content Strategy

So how do you deliver a consistent brand representation while still being aware of localization and cultural issues?

You need to develop a Visual Content Strategy:

  • What do you want your images to do? — Showcase your products? Showcase your customers? Show customers using your products?
  • What business need do you want your images to help achieve? — Engage prospects and lead to click-through and lead capture? Educate and help customers with self-service thereby reducing support costs?
  • What sort of images will you use to reflect your brand? — Photographic and realistic, inspirational and abstract?
  • Where will the images be used? — Global generic images? Regional and local application? If regional, how localized?

Next, look at the images that you are already delivering or have in development. Do they match the aims and business drivers outlined in your visual content strategy? If not, stop using them.

Content for the sake of content, no matter how pretty it looks, is a waste of resources and opportunity.

Take a detailed look at how your products are represented and localized. After the “shirt sleeves” incident one of the decisions we made was that for the equipment product pages on our website the main product shot would be just the machine against a plain white background.

Presenting the equipment in a consistent way made it stand out and avoided localization issues. The job-site shots were relegated to a gallery that could be customized based on the customer’s location.

The next step is developing a strong metadata model that is applied to the images to ensure that you use the same images to show the same ideas and concepts. Attach data that fits your workflow and that allows you to deliver the sort of customer experience that reinforces your brand. Balancing consistency with creativity should also be considered and trade-offs need to be made.

Delivering Consistent Experiences

With a strategy and metadata architecture in place you need a way to store and manage images so that they can be easily located and used in the correct manner.

A Digital Asset Management system is key to delivering a consistent visual user experience. I’d recommend starting with an achievable object, such as a DAM to drive your website and then grow it organically across the enterprise, to cover other delivery channels. Get people used to using it, prove that it provides value and it will lead to improved customer experience.

The man in the short sleeves helped my team develop and deliver a platform that quickly grew to an enterprise solution with over one million assets that could be tracked and reused to send the correct message in the correct market.

[NOTE: This post was first published on CMSWire September 2016)

When customer experience needs to get physical.

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It all started with a drip of water. You know that moment when you open the fridge door and feel a drop of water on your hand where you shouldn’t. It didn’t take me long to track where it was coming from, a dislodged pipe.

At least that’s what I thought it was. I managed to reconnect the pipe, but although the trickle of water lessened, it didn’t stop. Whatever was wrong was deeper in the workings of the fridge than I could see or reach.

No problem, the fridge was still under the manufacturer’s warranty. So I headed over to the manufacturer’s website and opened the online form to book a service call. It was all going well until I got to the line that asked for the fridge’s serial number.

It was back to the kitchen where I opened every door, and peered at every surface of the fridge writing down any number I could find; but it turned out none of them was the actual serial number. The serial number that was a required field on the service call form.

I called the customer help desk number, and the lady explained they needed the serial number so they could make sure they had the right information about model number for spare parts, and to check the purchase date and warranty coverage. That all seemed fair enough.

“So where do I find the serial number?” I asked.
“On a sticker on the fridge.”
“And where’s that sticker located on the fridge?”
“Oh, it’s on the back.”
“On the back of the fridge. The back that’s against a wall and enveloped in custom built kitchen cabinets? “
“Yes.”

This experience brought back memories of when I was working in the manufacturing sector. One of the companies I worked for also used the product serial number as the prime data point to identify a piece of equipment when customers needed service or spares.

An analysis of our online service portal showed that 70% of customers got the serial number wrong. They either guessed, or in most cases input the product’s model designation instead (the nice combination of letters and numbers painted on the side in a big bold color and large font).

The actual serial number they needed was on a small metal plate under a cover – but it told you how to find it in the owner’s manual, so there shouldn’t be a problem. Right?

Both are great examples of the disconnect that often happens when companies focus on the digital customer interaction without considering the actual physical product as part the overall experience.

Customer experience is a holistic exercise, and companies need to make it easy to transfer the process, and the data associated with it, from the physical to the digital, and vice-versa.

Think about your car. Need to access the VIN number for any reason, service, DMV registration, insurance etc. it’s right there at the bottom of the windshield where you can easily access it. Need to know the correct pressures to inflate your tires to – just open the car door and look at the stickers on the sill by the door catch.

The motor industry has done an excellent job over the years in standardizing how to provide essential information to the owner/operator in an accessible manner. It’s a lesson that many makers of many other products need to learn

As the internet of things comes to life around us, the boundary between digital and physical is fast disappearing and the customer experience needs to be an essential part of that evolution.

So What’s in a Name? – Everything!

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All I wanted to do was give a business some money. Yet they seemed determined to make it as difficult as possible for me to pay my bill. We had received our first invoice from them as a paper bill in the mail (How 20th Century!), but as we pay all but two of our regular bills online we decided to go on-line and pay that way.
Two steps into the website process it asked for our Account Number; which was not printed anywhere on the paper bill, nor on the covering letter. A few clicks and we
managed to find our account profile online. Still nothing labelled as “Account Number” anywhere. OK we’ll pay by check this time around just to make sure it
gets there. Then we saw the following note on the payment instructions: “Please include your account number on the check.”
You mean the “Account Number” that you haven’t told us?
A few more clicks around the website and we eventually found an email address to send a question about how we found this elusive number. The response was “ Oh we get asked that a lot. You just go to your Account profile and combine the abbreviation from Box with the number from Box 5 so the account number looks something like ABC1245.”
As I ran this frustrating scenario back through my mind (after I had managed to pay the bill) it raised several Customer experience questions:
1. If you have customers repeatedly asking the same question about a part of your process, then that part of your process is broken. You need to fix it. And not in a way that makes it easier for you, but in a way that it makes it easier for the customer to complete their task, like giving you money on time!
2. If there’s a vital identifying piece of information that customers need to be able to interact with your business processes, then make sure it’s included on any, and all, customer correspondence or interaction, be they physical or digital.
3. Names are important. Thin k about what you call something. Don’t expect the customers to know the terms you use internally. Pick names that the customer will recognize and use it consistently.
As a further example of this last point, I once worked with a company where one of its product lines was known internally by its engineering name. No-one outside the company used that term to describe that sort of product. No-one in the industry, and certainly none of the company’s customers or prospects did. But the engineering name was embedded throughout the company’s processes and even used on the website.
No-one ever searched for that name and as a result it never came up in search results and on-line lead generation for that product line was almost non-existence.
After a lot of discussion we eventually got the product people to agree to using the more common name on the website – i.e. the term that customers and prospects used when searching. In a week the relevant webpages started popping up in the top 10 search results. In a year the lead generation increased exponentially with a resultant growth in product revenue.
The customers were also happier, and support costs dropped, because they could now find the information they needed quickly and easily.
Think about the names you use, and the processes you use them in – then think about them again from the customer’s perspective.

There’s no such job! – Or, How I ended up with a career in Technical Communications

I can’t spell. I really can’t. I’m terrible at it, always have been. Yet I read voraciously (it just took me three attempts to spell that one right), and I love to write. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was seven years old, but my poor spelling was always something of a handicap, because I’m so old that when I was at school there was no such thing as spell checkers. Sure, there were dictionaries but the problem with a dictionary is that you have to at least have some basic idea of how a word is spelt to be able to get find it in the first place.
I also liked machines, cars, motorcycles, planes. I enjoyed taking them apart and finding out how they worked (OK I didn’t take planes apart, but I studied aerodynamics so I knew how they stayed up there). Early in my teens, sitting in the careers advisor’s office at school with the oil from the latest engine tear-down fresh under my finger nails, I had a discussion that went something like this:
Careers Advisor: “So what would be your ideal profession?”
Me: “Something that combined Engineering and Writing.”
Careers Advisor: “That’s not a career. There’s no such job.”

He then looked at the file on his desk, and then at my oily hands. “Your report says you have a good grasp of most subjects and can learn quickly, but you are a terrible speller.” Another look at the hands, “But clearly you like machines. Go be an engineer.”

And that was his final word, and that’s the path the school put me on.
Fast forward several years and I have a degree in Marine Engineering in my pocket and I’m working as a Junior Engineer in the British merchant marine on container ships. It wasn’t the life for me, except for one aspect.

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During long boring watch rota shifts in the mainly automated engine room I would while away the time reading the tech manuals. You know the things that I’d been told didn’t exist. And my reaction was (1) That idiot careers advisor had been wrong as someone must produce these, and (2) I could do them so much better.
Despite being paid to travel the world (well the Mediterranean and North Atlantic) while staring at a deck full of containers, after a year I decided to head back to land and to University to pursue a second degree in Industrial Technology. As part of the degree course we had to spend two separate six-month periods working in industry. My first industrial-placement was at a computer company, and the second?

At some point I’d been chatting to my girlfriend (now my wife) about potential placements and she suggested I talk to her brother-in-laws, both of whom worked at British Aerospace. Over a pint in the pub later that evening someone casually mentioned that there was a department called Technical Publications at the aerospace facility nearby, and he happened to know the guy who ran it. One introduction later and the following summer I found myself at a desk writing my first piece of technical documentation – a Component Maintenance Manual for an upgrade to the engine intakes on Concorde!

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As for that job that didn’t exist, by my reckoning I am now in my 32nd year of working in the profession in one capacity or other.