Mapping the human enome


The human genome project started in 1990 and continues today (I guess with ever decreasing marginal return) towards the exhaustive mapping of the core physical cells which make us. Definitions vary on when the project will be ‘complete’ but as Ray Kurzweil points out, we are accelerating towards whichever version of completeness you chose, as the technology to sequence the genome improves. This is a finite task.

This is of course very impressive.

But it will tell us absolutely nothing about why I used to hate my 13+ geography teacher, why Lindsay Lohan chose to throw away a promising acting career, what drove Tony Hancock to take his own life or how to sell a new type of toilet paper to anyone.


What we would need for that is an equivalent map of motivation?

I’m talking about a kind of super-matrix of Maslow needs, helping us to start to understand how the decisions we take are actually part of a broader model of interconnected behaviours and reasons we behave and think in certain ways – whether those motivations are primal, like the physiological elements of the hierarchy of needs, or more sophisticated like much discussed concept of ‘self actualisation’.

Such a model would certainly be useful in looking at tactics we use to address behaviours and behavioural problems, whether serious issues in development or less-serious issues (23 year olds are simply not buying enough cranberry juice), so why hasn’t it been done, or does it simply exist and I’ve been unable to find it? (Wikipedia lists the emotions here:, there is something interesting in this:

What sort of cook book would we be writing here? Will we – like chemists – come up with a long list of basic emotions from which all others will be cooked, or will we – like physicists – find a key emotion or two which sits as the basis of the entire system, and from which everything can be made?

I think we’re looking here at a system we can reduce to few components, maybe even one, the fear of death. From this fear we can start to derive many of the decisions  that fill our daily lives. Death drives us to build a physical and mental security and to want to be part of wider, social groups. Death makes us want to reproduce, to extend our legacy beyond our actual lifetimes.

How about belief systems in major external factors, like religion and patriotism. Surely such otherwise peculiar behaviours start to make sense when we can see how they relate to a complex map of beliefs based on more fundemental conditioning we have undergone.

So I propose a first draft of a tree of decision making which is as follows (and many many apologies for doing it in smart art). image

The one thing that strikes me absolutely immediately is that so many of the immediate motivations relate so directly to areas provided for my religion. In Connected, Nicholas Christakis argues that belief in a higher-power can support the desire to be part of a network, it also – often – supports the need to think beyond one’s death and many many aspect of family life and social cohesion. Put more broadly, the need to understand moral codes, seems to link directly to the model I have outlined.

The areas shown here seem to be amongst the most primal. Where we can relate the behaviour we are trying to foster to these motivations, we will be far more likely to drive adherence. Magazine editors have long known that money, sex and chocolate sell. Apple have unleashed the powerful allure of group status and immediate clique membership.

Perhaps I’ll not get to the bookshelf of densely packed information shown at the top (in the Wellcome Collection’s physical readout of the human genome) but I’m going to keep exploring this concept, trying to find motivations which just don’t fit. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the idea.

Beneath the surface of things


Whatever you think of the Microsoft Surface device, it’s been fascinating to watch the first steps of development of apps for the new style of interface.

It’s a radically different world now from when we started out web development in the last decade, but it will be just as hard to develop the new ways of thinking about how we interact with machines in this new setting.

When the web was in its infancy, we saw lots of ideas being transplanted from the world of print publishing, and later from the world of advertising. That resulted in some pretty horrible sites being built for many years.

Remember all those years of non-scrolling pages, or the multitudes of ‘single idea’ sites where the navigation was in the style of a cockroach, or a pizza, or a brain, or whatever? That was people taking what they knew about another subject and misappropriating it for a new and much more interactive medium.

But the fundamental design restriction of the early days wasn’t lack of knowledge or thinking about the interaction of computers and people. It was technology itself.

The interface technology – adapted painfully from academic routes – was difficult to learn. And the skills needed to build the functioning parts of these applications were very hard to locate at all. At first, it all had to be written from scratch which few could do, and even if they could, even fewer could bridge the gap between the teams who would build the applications and the teams who could work out what they should do.

With hindsight, we’ve come a very long way in a very short space of time with web deisgn. The world is now full of very talented interface designers, user experience specialists, technologists, development platforms and reasonably coherent ways to get them all to work towards a common goal.

So, the challenge of developing in a fundamentally new paradigm for Surface is quite different. The technology itself is no longer the killer issue. The platforms (WPF, XNA and .net) are well understood, as are the architectures for information flow and manipulation.

Instead, in the user-experience space, we’re faced with a need to deeply rethink pretty much everything we thought we knew.

Here’s an app which allows multiple surface users to search through and display news and entertainment content from MSN: Pulling all the feeds together and building the app are relatively straight-forward but working out how the users best get to that information is a another matter.

In this new setting, we must avoid the non-direct metaphors which characterise GUI, so almost all the controls that we’ve spent the last 10 years standardising have to go. The concepts of buttons, windows and scroll bars should all be vanquished. Instead, we need to find direct metaphors about interacting with objects. We need to find ways to avoid having specific orientation. We need to think about how multiple users can work together with the content. And we need to do all this in way which is seductive and enticing.

Does the news reader do this? Well the feeds themselves may not be a problem, but they are still hardwired to sources that have been created for online applications. Are we avoiding orientation? The now somewhat ubiquitous use of a large circle seems simultaneously too obvious and problematic. Where is the natural metaphor for this? A bowl of sweets perhaps but inside our ‘bowl’ we have a swarm of what can only be described as ‘windows’. And what a rotatable device solves in terms of orientation, it screws up immediately in terms of multiple users, as it faces in one direction at a time.

It’s certainly not easy. And, it’s wrong to pick harshly at early attempts to solve these problems, but we’ll necessarily need to work a lot harder, take more risks and be more experimental if we’re to get more than a large, horizonal web styling.

Looking back to the web, we’re in a position now when so many elements have become engrained in our thinking. We have a great deal to rethink

  • Single source of consistent navigation
  • The concept of a home page
  • The concept of flow being within containing elements
  • The idea that the user opens and closes things (still very prevalent)
  • The concept of linear stand-alone ‘states’ (already eroded by ajax interfaces)
  • Ideas of what it means to be recoverable
  • Single user tasks (even if we only have one active user, we can have multiple concurrent task- or explore-elements alive concurrently)
  • The concept of private browsing – another user’s actions can (and on Surface normally do) interrupt and influence each other
  • The method of ‘what’s next’
  • The entire concept of intermediary metaphors
  • What we mean by scanability for copy and images
  • The role of content
  • The sorts of assets (copy, images and video) which make sense in the medium

The list goes on.

And owing to the nature of the device and its development, progress is likely to be slow. This is accentuated by the polarisation of companies who are developing apps right now – between extreme usability and user experience experts who look at these problems very academically, but also often in a great hurry,  and development companies who are keener to show technology ideas than think in too much depth about what goes on in the mind of the user.

Since Surface is a reasonably long way from being a consumer product, the audience for Surface applications is essentially the same groups – those excited about the hardware and those who’ve spent years learning how you do digital design for the web.

Few apps currently bring the promise of natural user interface, collaborative computing or object recognition. Before we can do that we still have a lot to learn and even more to unlearn.

Planes, toilets and wanting it

Virgin America arrivals sign at Vegas

The User Experience ‘track’ at Mix included some of the world’s most enlighted thinkers on creating business value from powerful user experiences. Alongside Conchango‘s very own Paul Dawson, were Experience Matter’s Lou Carbone (author of Clued In which I discussed here) and Dan Roam.

Aside from a broad consensus about the importance of actively managing experience, two key themes emerged – airlines and toilets.

Toilets in particular were a big part of Paul’s presentation (he actually used them to discuss scenario analysis but you’ll have to watch the presentation to find out more about that), and form a sizeable chunk of Clued In, as he examines the experience ‘clues’ that hotels generate by the little touches, such as folding over the base of the toilet roll (it’s a lot more interesting than I’ve just made it sound of course!).

Airlines regularly emerge as either heroes or villains of the experience question. Paul talked at length about the positive in-flight (and in-lounge) experience that Virgin Atlantic fosters and what customers say about it. Lou Carbone, for his part, hates (and no that really isn’t too strong a word) Southwestern Airlines in the states, making the point that he has a gold card from them for ‘loyalty’ so they’re unlikely to realise he’s going around telling everyone how terrible they are.

Lou Carbone tells a story of being denied a glass of water whilst sitting in the back of a Southwestern flight, and the venom with which he was treated by the staff while they were doing it.

Toilets are intimate place, where small details matter. Airlines feel like they should design the experience because they do theoretically control it so completely.

Perhaps fittingly, on my way home from the conference, I have found a brilliantly managed brand experience. You’ll be pleased to know, on an airline, not a toilet, and in particular when taking a short connecting flight inside the states with Virgin America.

The ‘clues’ start early. With this new airline, the in-plane the announcement before you take off is given by the pilot from the main passenger cabin rather than from the cockpit over the PA system – that’s a pretty strong signal. And then, in our bit of the cabin, they didn’t have the safety video so one of team did it manually, but because we were heading to Vegas, he did it Elvis style, glasses, cape and all.

If fact, it seems to carry across to all the staff. They’re not necessarily any faster than BA or whoever, but it’s really obvious in the way they go about their jobs that they really want the airline to succeed and that they believe that if they make people feel great about the airline and recommend it, that can make the difference. The pilot announced after landing – ‘if you’ve got a mobile phone, feel free to make a call now’. Amazing how refreshing it is to be told about things you can do on a plane. Then you get off in Las Vegas and you see the sign at the top of the page!

And, when things go a bit wrong – as they did with  a close connection I had yesterday – the staff really went the extra mile, with a VA guy spending 10 minutes helping me transfer to a BA flight.

The upshot of course is that I’ll recommend VA and, I’ll seek them out when I’m next travelling in the states. You never know. I may even write a blog post about it

Discredit where it’s overdue

A million years ago, when I was an undergraduate in Bristol, I wandered into the city centre with my first grant cheque burning a hole in my pocket. (This was in days where the government didn’t just pay for your studies, they also contributed to frivolities like food and books, or rather – of course – beer).

How did I pick the financial services establishment where I would deposit my sole earnings for this freshman term and – as it turned out – my income for the next 15 years? Attractive rates? A free rail card (nowadays: a free iPod)? Helpful service? A sound reputation? Environmental Policy? Good phone banking (today: internet banking)?

Nope. I went into the first bank I saw.

Without wanting to sound like a country song, the relationship that started that day ended yesterday after many painful disappointments and let downs; yes, the odd moment of happiness; but mostly old-fashioned thoughtlessness and disrespect. Just how did we drift apart? Surely the good times must count for something? Couldn’t we try and talk things through? I had, after all been banking with this brand for almost half of my life.

The truth is that the service has always been terrible. Dirty, slow branches. Overly complex products, reinvented every fifteen minutes. Constant irrelevant direct marketing. Seeing the customer as nothing more than a prospect for new products. It’s not that they’ve got worse. It’s just that every year the rest of the world moves and the terrible experiences we have with personal banking become less and less tolerable. Once, when phoning from New York to unblock my credit card, the call centre person spent 10 minutes trying to sign me up for a more ‘personal’ banking service.

On Wednesday afternoon, this thinly-veiled contempt was given a very real and very weasely face – in the form of a branch manager. After I was advised that I would need to apply for a provisional driving licence in order to perform a funds transfer, I decided the camel’s back was irretrievably broken. ‘How about I just close my account and try another bank?’ I asked. ‘No sir, you’ll have to arrange a meeting to do that, and you’ll need another form of identification’.

When the only reason your customers don’t leave is that they expect equally bad behaviour from your competitors, or because you make it as difficult as possible, then clearly the writing is on the wall. When a little turd of a man is practically spitting this sentiment at you, you really have to wonder what’s going on. And of course at this point, the light-hearted, overly-jovial, innocent-drinks-style branding in the branch served only to pour petrol on the flames.

This is, after all – as Forrester keeps telling us – the year that experience-based differentiation will drive the banking market. But we’re not exactly talking about generating delight. The standard – missed by my ex-bank – seems to be avoiding out-and-out rudeness. How come Starbucks, who sell overpriced coffee, can greet you with a smile and try – if occasionally in vain – to solve your coffee dilemma, and yet the only time this bank will speak to me is if they are trying to charge me for something or to sell me something?

The value of experience

I’ve talked a fair amount already about what it means for brands to differentiate themselves through experience, in particular in the context of, Lewis Carbone’s excellent book Clued In.

Well it couldn’t have been a more important topic at Forrester’s Consumer and Financial Services forum last week in Barcelona. The subject of a number of presentations including the keynote, Forrester has picked this as the deciding factor in the financial services market.

It’s easy to see why. With more and more sources of information and advice (from Goliaths like MoneySavingExpert or MoneySupermarket to your Uncle Bob who used to work at a bank), we now able to slice, dice and level the product market. The ability for providers to create competitive advantage through a cunning product set up and some nice marketing is heading rapidly out of the window.

This situation is not eased by ever more vigilant regulators. And what about when you think you’ve managed to get past the regulators but are treating your customers slightly less than fairly? Witness what happened to HSBC: while attempting a rate hike during the summer holidays they overlooked the power of Facebook and were eventually forced into humiliating defeat at the hands of the ‘Stop the Great HSBC Graduate Rip Off’ group and its 1000s of members.


The customers really are revolting – and not just the spotty student types.

The answer of course is to stop fighting the customer and to start giving them what they want, but on your terms.

And, what do all human beings want?

It certainly doesn’t take just one form but we can accurately say that all customers do want one thing – they want to feel better about themselves after dealing with your company.

They want to have experiences that make them feel more confident, more fulfilled, cleverer, or just plain happier. And companies that deliver better experiences will be rewarded with happier, more loyal and more profitable customers.

There’s a reason why Krispy Kreme gets to charge more than Dunkin Donuts for exactly the same product and still have customers queuing around the block. There’s a reason why BHS closed down and M&S picked up.

And so, that is the Forrester riff. Success may be about multi-channel, it may be about efficiency, it may be about product, but above all it’s about deep customer insight and using that to create experiences that customers feel positive about, so that they then spread the news about the brand. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean that every customer has to find every outcome positive. If you’re going to have to turn someone down for a loan, that can be done in better or worse ways, if someone is working out what their pension will earn them, you can’t always make the outcome happy, but you can make the experience empowering, and confidence (if not happiness) instilling.

Like all the best insights, it barely feels worth saying, once you’ve heard it but look at your everyday experiences with your bank or insurance company – on and offline – and tell me how you feel about them – or more importantly yourself – afterwards.

Planning planning

(or ‘towards a complete redefinition on the role of the brand strategist’)


There’s a terrible joke or riddle I still remember from school: ‘What was the longest river in the world before the Nile was discovered?’. The answer, of course, is ‘the Nile’.

The launch of the landmark Stephen King retrospective on planning poses an similar question. What was King’s job (and Pollitt’s for that matter) before they invented planning. Presumably job titles like ‘head of planning’ were, at that point, unavailable.

The answer is different for the two men. King worked in JWT’s marketing department (which appeared to involve research and the setting of strategy – so broadly the same, although presumably very differently conducted), Pollitt was an account man who’d been put in charge of research.

And a bit like ‘Hitchhikers’ guide to the galaxy’ and the secret of life, the universe and everything, ever since their job was invented, planners have been  trying to work out what it means.

King, apparently lamented planning’s obsession with constantly trying to redefine its raison d’etre (as Jeremy Bullmore is supposed to have joked, it is a major irony that a profession that spends so much time looking for insight, still can’t explain itself), his own view seemed merely to be that planing was bringing science to the art of communication and persuasion. Famously he said the role spanned ‘grand strategist’ to ‘ad tweaker’.

So what’s the new planning? How do we start defining the role, the profession of the marketer / communicator / staff member who can drive business value through product and communication strategy nowadays.

Of course, if you speak to a planner, they’ll tell you that planning is the new planning. Indeed many of the leading lights of the new discussion (Russell Davies, Richard Huntingdon) and the most interesting and exciting thinking have come from this area. But that’s bound to happen, underlying truths about communication are indeed timeless, and the biggest and most insightful brains are the ones most likely to understand the changing face of the market (they’re the ones faced with the demise of the old paradigms)

But is ‘old planning’ the same as ‘new planning’? Hardly. We all see far too much ‘old’ thinking and approach being forced into the new discipline.

Perhaps marketers will lead the charge. Well again, there clearly are some marketers (like Godin) gearing up, but it’s certainly not most of them. What about designers? What about UEs? What about ‘Persuasion Architects’? Hell, what about cartoonists? That seems an equally rich vein at the moment.

So what are the axioms of this new group?

We take as our starting point that the adversarial unilateral relationship between brands and consumers is over. We understand that great, interesting products will succeed. The acknowledge that consumer insight must inform the product itself and not just it’s messaging or communications. We understand that the consumer will decide how they value goods and services.

Iain Tait’s somewhat tongue in cheek ‘why digital is better than advertising‘ speech at PSFK contained this gem (apologies for the transcription):

[in the traditional agencies, you find] structures that have been put in place  […] to make well-understood units of advertising, that’s why you have planners, creatives and TV producers. It’s not the same structures you need for technical and cultural innovation.

But like the pioneers that brought science to advertising through planning, we must look at how we do that more broadly in a world where we no longer ‘game’ communications; where we return to designing brands that matter in its deepest sense. It will have to be someone who understands people – from meeting them in all contexts, through observing them, through understanding the latest drivers in society and culture; someone who understands the tonnes of research we can now gather constantly; someone who understands user-experience across multiple media; who understand the truths of communication and persuasion, and the limits of a huge number of media.

But let’s not try and pretend that there is one group ready to simply take the crown. There is not.

On with the show

Oh Mickey, you’re so fine

Aside from the usual rubber chicken and three-inch-wide movies, most of my long flight yesterday, and a rather intimidating trip on the A-train into Manhattan, was taken up with reading Lewis P Carbone’s Clued In.

This amazing book provides a method for understanding customers, products and brands that not only fits the classic American hospitality industries of the 70s (which is where Carbone’s own interest was kindled by his work with clients including Disney at Epcot) but the new moves away from mass-communication and towards brands and reputations. His system doesn’t need re-invention for the noughties. It comes millennium proofed, with massive relevance to the new consumer and even the way digital interfaces must work.

And it is incredibly accessible. It’s amazing to see ideas that have been washing around my brain half-baked given a clear articulate voice.

Carbone starts with the premise that the accountants and management consultants have caused us to lose focus on a key fact – that the “value” our companies produce must be measured in terms of what the customer wants not just the bottom line of pounds and pence. Sound obvious? Well look what’s happening to the airline industry. In the name of low prices, we now have to put up with non-predicatable pricing models, literally no service on the (low cost) flights, being bumped and moved around, fighting over chairs  (on EasyJet) and being routed through multiple stops. Carbone points to JetBlue and Southwest who have both consistently posted profit in a market which is otherwise falling apart. Southwest publicly explains their philosophy for business

More than 30 years ago, Rollin King and Herb Kelleher got together and decided to start a different kind of airline. They began with one simple notion: If you get passangers to their destinations when they want to get there, on time, at the lowest possible fares, and make darn sure they have a good time doing it, people will fly your airline. And you know what they’re right.

As Carbone goes on to say, it’s not precisely about having a good time (flying on any low-cost carrier is not going to be a week at the Four Seasons), it’s about feeling good about the time you’re having.

And here we get to what I think is the central insight. The question brand marketers often ask is “how does you customer feel about the brand”. Ask a customer that question and you will get an abstract post-rationalised answer back. Instead, Carbone suggests, we should focus on how the customer feels when they’re interacting your brand. The negative feelings that we have when companies who provide poor customer service are actually negative feelings about ourselves that have been created by the experience.

For the experience to work, it must be authentic and it must connect on an emotional level as well as a functional one. He points to a survey which shows that defecting customers are likely to say they are “satisfied” on customer service score cards (i.e. not “dissatisfied”, “neutral” or “very satisfied”). To bread the sort of customer advocates we need nowadays, we need to be aiming for customers who thoroughly enjoy the whole experience and come to expect a fantastic experience on future vists; customers who enjoyed your experience so much that they are willing to put their own reputations at stake and recommend it.

As a brief  aside, Carbone is looking at established retail chains so does not dwell on purely funtional issues, assuming that all outlets achieve “hygiene” levels of service. Obviously, this is far from being the case online, where far too many mistakes have been made in the name of emotional design).

Where’s this working in practice? Taking roughly equal sellers of a commodity product – Krispy Kreme and Dunkin’ Donughts, Carbone shows that the product itself is a small part of the value proposition, with a focus on customer experience driving the lion’s share of the value. Krispy Kreme sells more (of essentially the same thing), at a higher price, with less advertising to a more enthusiastic audience.

He maintains this is possible in any market or scenario, showing how it’s been applied even in emergency rooms int the US and in the development of campus sports facilities.

My old boss had a great epxression about all this. Traditional wisdom has it that “If you take care of the pennies, the pounds will take care of themselves”. Kim Conchie’s version was

If you take care of the pennies, you’ll end up with a big pile of pennies

Businesses that drive ‘shareholder value’ by cost-cutting and commoditising their product will end up with a bigger and bigger share of a smaller and smaller market, as new entrants, redefine their products around customer expereince.

Without space and time

Word of mouth 

I spent alot of time listening to (and trying to find intelligent responses to) Julian R Harris on Friday. He’s also at Conchango and we had a number of meetings with clients, although they took very different directions.

Anyone who’s met Julian, or plugged themselves into his high wattage blog will know that the experience is somewhat like the proverbial “drinking from a firehose” as Julian comes out with idea after idea across a huge variety of topics, leaving the mere mortal gasping for air, trying to slot the ideas together. Great fun though. 

Anyhow we were talking about trends and social change and Julian made the point that word-of-mouth was always the most powerful influence, it’s just that the web has changed word of mouth from an activity anchored in time and location and turned it into a permanent (and through Google, findable) reference which the whole world can see.

I know this isn’t new news but it seemed to me to be an incredibly succinct way to understand what’s going on. And how can brands recover from negative word of mouth? There’s only one way. They must change and enlist customers as advocates in that change.