There is something strangely satisfying about swiping a credit card. There’s just enough friction between the card and the reader to provide a thrilling sense of accomplishment as you slide your Mastercard or Visa. Sadly, this experience is being replaced with a motion that is far less gratifying. Our new chip cards may provide us with heightened security, but inserting a credit card and waiting for it to process is far less enjoyable a process than its predecessor. Heck, it’s not even as satisfying as opening a hotel door with a magnetized room key. At least in that case you get to “dip” your card.
While I am already nostalgic for the days of wanton credit card swiping, I am more disappointed that Verifone, the maker of the leading chip card reader decided that a “Danger, Will Robinson” alarm was the best way to indicate we could now remove our lifeless, inert chip card from their device. This results in a vague feeling of lingering regret at the end of every transaction. It is the retail equivalent of the “Game Over” sound in video games. It might as well just say to you, “Money is gone.”
With a focus on functional flow, it’s easy for designers to forget about the sense of hearing–but it can play an important role in enhancing the user experience. In this case, Verifone missed an opportunity to end every single retail purchase with a sound that positively reinforces purchasing and to have consumers associate that delight with their brand name. Making a purchase should sound like you just fist bumped Tinkerbell–a sound that connotes victory and new possibilities–not the impending doom of your credit card statement.
By now, most of America has seen what has been dubbed, “the worst Super Bowl commercial of all time,” the somber Nationwide insurance ad called, “Make Safe Happen.”
Nationwide CMO, Matt Jauchius, told Fast Company that, “The purpose of the ad is to, in a way, stage an intervention on this issue.”
Here’s the thing about interventions. They are used when someone is in deep denial about a problem. Interventions are a last resort method used when someone is out of control, hell-bent on destruction and won’t listen to reason.
The challenge with preventable childhood deaths isn’t an issue of denial, it’s an issue of education. No one is purposely making their home an unsafe place for their children. No one is sitting idly by while children die. No one is unmoved by these statistics. They are just unaware.
The Nationwide ad missed the mark by creating fear instead of understanding.
Fear-based marketing is like TNT. If deployed correctly, and in the right context, it may accomplish breakthrough awareness. If deployed incorrectly, it will blow up in your face.
Or worse, Twitter.
I recently visited the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. In a masterfully renovated townhome overlooking Central Park, the museum seeks to provide historical and contemporary perspectives on the impact of design on daily life.
I went to see their exhibition Beautiful Users: Designing for People. The collection explores a relatively new phenomenon of user-centered design. The exhibit includes milestones in “designing for people” including Henry Dreyfuss’ Humanscale project, the prototype handles SmartDesign designed for the Good Grips line as well as the original sketches for the Honeywell round thermostat–the predecessor for the beloved Nest.
The concept of contextual inquiry is deeply embedded in the practice of industrial design. The exhibit demonstrates how having an intimate understanding of the motivations, behaviors, environment and limitations of the user contributes to breakthrough innovation. The best industrial designers are passionate about people. They truly believe that their user is beautiful and that meeting the needs of the user, on their own terms, leads to the most elegant solution.
Can we say the same for marketers?
I worked for JCPenney when Ron Johnson took the helm. While the division I worked for didn’t survive his “reign of error,” I was hopeful that he would apply the same innovative thinking he had employed at Target and Apple to revive a truly beloved American brand. But one thing became clear very early on. Ron Johnson didn’t like the JCPenney customer. He wanted them to be more on trend, tech-savvy and progressive than they actually were. He didn’t believe his customer was beautiful. He thought they were ugly ducklings waiting for him to turn them into middle-class swans.
He was wrong.
As someone who has made a career of marketing to people with stigmatized health conditions, I know it can be easy to fall into a pattern of judgment. I have marketed to the depressed, the overweight, the chronically ill, the poor and the addicted. It can be difficult to truly understand people who don’t live and think like you do.
But as a marketing leader, I’ve learned to nip condescension toward customers in the bud when I hear it from team members, other executives or vendors. Having contempt for your own customer is the most heinous, and fatal, of marketing sins. Once this bitter weed takes root you can guarantee your marketing strategy is about to choke on its own lack of empathy.
So how do you connect to a customer you don’t have anything in common with? Borrow these techniques from industrial designers:
Take Your Personas to the Extreme–Developing user personas have their place, but industrial designers know that representative users don’t effectively represent the needs of true users. It’s often the extreme cases that reveal your product’s best potential for impact. The best way to understand the extremes is by meeting and listening to many, real-life users.
Shadow Your Customer-Walk a mile in their shoes–or work boots, or orthopedic sneakers, or Louboutins–you get the idea. Ask if you can just hang out with a customer for a day. People love to share about themselves and it will give you a chance to understand how your product fits into the larger context of their life. You’ll also experience first-hand the challenges they face everyday.
Prototype for Understanding–Industrial designers spend the majority of their time refining prototypes, making incremental improvements until maximum efficiency and efficacy is achieved. As marketers, we tend toward the “Ta-Da!” method of development. As in, “Ta-Da!-we’ve-made-all-the-choices-already-what-do-you-think?” If you’re struggling to understand what your customer wants or needs, just ask them. By involving them in the process you’ll not only build a better campaign, you’ll build trust as well.
The best marketing campaigns are mirrors, reflecting the reality of a user’s experience, values and desires. Harboring contempt for customers shatters the glass, cutting people with shame and pity–and leaving your brand in shards. Contextual inquiry and ethnography are like marketing Windex–revealing the humanity, and beauty, in every customer.
Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness — an empathy — was necessary if the attention was to matter.
One of the risks of traditional “free-for-all” brainstorming is a form of groupthink known as Idea Infatuation.
Infatuation means to “inspire with a foolish or unreasoning passion.” Idea infatuation is what happens when someone falls in love with an idea at first sight and proceeds to lust after that idea with an all-consuming desire that scorns all other suitors–despite demonstrable evidence.
Just like falling in love, a creative crush can feel really good. Often the ideas we become infatuated have some sort of sex appeal. They might have a stunning visual tie-in, or perhaps a witty tagline. Often they involve satisfying alliteration, a handy acrostic or, perhaps, a perfect rhyme. Or these days, an awesome hashtag.
In this way, these ideas appear to be heaven-sent. But most of the time, these ideas come to us quickly because they were simply more convenient. Chances are, the subject of your infatuation is a cliché, an oversimplification or some form of stereotype. But because they appear “perfect” they often engender extreme loyalty, particularly among those who were struck by Idea Cupid’s arrow.
This is where things get a bit tricky. True strategic insights also come with certainty that inspires action. How do you know if you’ve hit on a strategic insight and not just some idea floozy out to distract you from the real deal? Looks for these signs:
- The idea comes very quickly.
Ideas that seem obvious, probably are. Idea infatuation tempts us to stop the ideation process prematurely by offering easy solutions to complex problems. Even if the idea has merit, don’t take the bait. Strategic insights often come after serious consideration.
- The idea becomes the only option.
Idea infatuation blinds us from seeing other concepts as viable options. All of the sudden, that idea is the only possible solution. Integrative thinking relies on adductive logic, or the ability to see new concepts based on the combination of multiple possible solutions. Idea infatuation is like a crazy stalker, while strategic insights play the field.
- The idea has no weaknesses.
When we’re infatuated, we overlook the faults in the object of our affection. The same thing happens with Idea Infatuation. You know you’re infatuated with an idea when despite new information or evidence, you still perceive your idea to be complete or perfect.
- The idea begins to give less and less.
Creative crushes seem awesome at first, but when placed under a critical evaluation process it becomes harder and harder to justify them. As they say in the ad biz, they don’t have “legs.” If you find yourself forcing connections or stretching metaphors, you’re probably flirting with the wrong idea.
- There is fear and anxiety around losing the idea.
Folks who become infatuated with ideas quickly develop codependent behaviors. They start to get defensive about the concept, resisting improvement and insisting that they can make it work. If they feel the momentum shifting against the idea, they become even more adamant in their professions of love for their crush.
If you see these warning signs, it’s time for an idea intervention. One way to break the spell of idea infatuation is to use a technique I call Headstand. Take the current idea and consider it’s exact opposite, then consider it’s total extreme. Perspective shifting, lateral thinking exercises like this can often expose the weaknesses of a skin-deep concept and open a team to new avenues of exploration. Don’t be surprised if it takes some effort to consciously uncouple the group from the idea.
After all, breaking up is hard to do.
Criticism is difficult for most people to receive, even from the most trusted and respected sources. Yet constructive criticism is essential to creative collaboration, idea evaluation and successful innovation. Learning to deliver feedback effectively can be the difference between building consensus and destroying team morale.
If you want to see what effective, even inspiring, constructive criticism looks like, look no further than Ben Folds. Yes, that Ben Folds. As a judge on the ABC series, The Sing-Off, and in a recent guest appearance on American Voices with Renee Fleming, Ben Folds doesn’t just give a master class in musicality–he’s offering lessons in effective critique. When Ben Folds finishes his analysis, people never look defeated–they look determined to try again. How does he do it?
The Ben Folds Five-Point Critique
1. Honor the Intention
The first thing Ben always does is express an authentic form of gratitude for getting the opportunity to experience the talent of a performer. He honors their courage and intention in sharing their gift.
2. Provide a Broader Perspective
Drawing on his own experience as performer, Ben often offers a broader perspective that takes his feedback out of the context of the specific performance and frames the critique as an opportunity to develop a skill that can be utilized in other situations–subtlety enhancing the value of the offered information.
3. Give Specific Insight Based on Expertise
This part is essential. Ben Folds is not offering just vague opinions, he is offering expertise steeped in a knowledge of the field he is critiquing. His feedback is precise and specific, therefore, more credible.
4. Partner For the Solution
Ben will often include a challenge to his critiquee. “Try it like this…” or “Experiment with this…” These sort of thought-starters show shared vulnerability and a service-orientation to the feedback that develops a sense of partnership with the receiver.
5. Demonstrate Empathy
It’s hard not to love Ben Folds, who might be the closest thing we have to a Muppet in human form. But it’s not just his “aw-shucks” authenticity that makes people receptive to his feedback. He often wraps his critiques in personal anecdotes or humor that help people connect with him–transforming him from judge to friend.
So what does the Ben Folds Five-Point Critique looks like in the real world? Use the following script as an example.
This technique might just seem like an advanced “compliment sandwich”, but it doesn’t rely on false flattery to help people choke down harsh criticism. Instead it’s a five-layer dip of trust-building goodness. Next time you have an opportunity to just blurt out your opinion, just ask yourself WWBFD instead.
Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.
SPOILER ALERT: A bunch of British masterminds cracked the Nazi Enigma code during World War II.
The new movie, The Imitation Game, portrays the true story of the father of modern computer science, Alan Turing, and a band of British cryptologists, as they developed a machine that could translate the ciphers produced by German Enigma machines. The top-secret project, called Ultra, is estimated to have accelerated the end of World War II by two years, saving more than an estimated 14 million lives.
It’s a great film addressing important issues of childhood trauma, personal identity and social tolerance, but it also very accurately depicts the nature of strategic insight. The team is assembled to tackle a truly “wicked” problem–in every sense of the word. They hole up together in Hut 8 at Bletchley Park to save the world with math.
Everyday, they have about 16 hours–from the time the first German messages are intercepted to the time the Enigma machines settings are changed at midnight–to try to crack the code. When Turing finally assembles a machine that has the ability to solve the cipher, it still can’t work fast enough to process all of the possible combinations in time. With more Allied troops and civilians dying with each passing day, the team literally raced the clock to come up with the answers.
And they were getting nowhere fast.
Jump to a scene where the dejected band is relaxing in a pub, throwing back a few pints and doing anything put thinking about the problem. In a casual flirtation, a friend mentions the German radio operator she intercepts messages from always uses the same word to begin his messages. Suddenly, Turing jumps from his seat–electrified by a strategic insight. Like Archimedes in the bathtub, he has a “Eureka! moment” that provides him with the final piece of the puzzle that helps him see the solution clearly.
What Creative Problem-Solving Really Looks Like
We’ve been led to believe that the best way to solve a problem is to get everyone into the biggest conference room for a brainstorming session. We announce the challenge and then everyone throws their best ideas into the ring. The “solution” reached is most likely a compromise. But The Imitation Game does a great job demonstrating the realities of successful creative problem-solving:
Correct problem definition
While others were trying to translate encrypted messages, Turing defined the problem differently. He was trying to build a machine that could decode the settings of the Enigma machine and, subsequently, decrypt all the messages. Correctly defining the problem allows teams to concentrate on the root issues that lead to strategic insights and game-changing results.
Solution generation by a diverse team
While the movie portrays Turing as the socially-stunted, brilliant mathematician that he was, he did not solve Enigma on his own. Various people from different backgrounds (even a woman, for Pete’s sake!) were brought onto the team to provide different perspectives on possible solutions. Together, they contributed ideas that ultimately informed the solution.
Frustration to the point of giving up
Sitting in a room constantly thinking about a problem can be counterproductive. However, history records many serendipitous moments when, frustrated by their lack of progress, people stopped thinking about the problem and lo, and behold–while they were walking, running, taking a shower, fishing, singing in the church choir, drinking a beer–they experienced a strategic insight.
The certainty of strategic insight
One of the defining characteristics of a true strategic insight is that it comes with great certainty. A strategic insight will feel like a “slap-yourself-on-the-forehead” good idea that was right in front of you all along. With that certainty, it is easy to galvanize an insight-driven team to take the next step.
Imitating “The Imitation Game”
Want to imitate the results you see in The Imitation Game to crack the code on your own Enigma? Here’s how:
1. Take time to clearly define the problem.
Use a tool like Toyota’s Five Whys to help you get to the root issues of the challenges you are experiencing. As Albert Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about the solution.”
2. Assemble a diverse team to generate possible solutions.
You need both experts and novices on your team. If everyone on the team thinks exactly alike, the chances of unearthing a revolutionary insight are slim. Search for analogous problems in other industries and bring in an outsider to provide a fresh perspective.
3. Allow the team to spend time together and time alone to encourage insights.
The best insights are achieved by a combining past knowledge, application of lateral expertise, fresh perspectives and time. Don’t rush the solution, be patient with the process.
4. When lightning strikes, capture the energy!
When a strategic insight occurs, act on it immediately. Use the certainty that comes with a strategic insight to gain momentum in executing your solution.
Value Proposition Design (Wiley, 2015)
In this follow-up to their seminal book, Business Model Generation, Osterwalder, et. al. dive into the value proposition block of the business model canvas with a visual, step-by-step guide for generating, testing and implementing value propositions.