Friday, January 31, 2014

A Design Lesson: Customers Don't Remember Everything They Experience

My brother is an ophthalmologist in a small town in India. In his private practice, patients have two options to see him: either take an appointment or walk in. Most patients don't take an appointment due to a variety of cultural and logistics reasons and prefer to walk in. These patients invariably have to wait anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour and half on a busy day. I always found these patients to be anxious and unhappy that they had to wait, even if they voluntarily chose to do so. When I asked my brother about a possible negative impact due to unhappiness of his patients (customers) he told me what matters is not whether they are unhappy while they wait but whether they are happy or not when they leave. Once these patients get their turns to see my brother for a consultation, which lasts for a very short period of time compared to how much they waited, my brother will have his full attention to them and he will make sure they are happy when they leave. This erases the unpleasant experience from their minds that they just had it a few minutes back.

I was always amused at this fact until I got introduced to the concept of experience side versus memory side by my favorite psychologist Daniel Kahneman, explained in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow and in his TED talk (do watch the TED talk, you won't regret it). While the patients waited the unpleasant experience was the experience side which they didn't remember and the quality time they spent in the doctor's office was the memory side that they did remember.

Airlines, hotels, and other companies in service sectors routinely have to deal with frustrated customers. When customers get upset they won't remember series of past good experiences they had but they would only remember how badly it ended - a cancelled flight, smelly hotel room or production outage resulting in an escalation. Windows users always remember the blue screen of death but when asked they may not necessarily remember anything that went well on a Windows machine prior to a sudden crash resulting into the blue screen of death. The end matters the most and an abrupt and unrecoverable crash is not a good end. If the actual experience matters people will perhaps never go back to a car dealership. However people do remember getting a great deal in the end and forget the misery that the sales rep put them through by all the haggling.

Proactive responses are far better in crisis management than reactive ones but reactive responses do not necessarily have to result in a bad experience. If companies do treat customers well after a bad experience by being truly apologetic, responsive, and offering them rewards such as free upgrades, miles, partial refund, discounts etc. people do tend to forget bad experiences. This is such a simple yet profound concept but companies tend not to invest into providing superior customer support. Unfortunately most companies see customer support as cost instead of an investment.

This is an important lesson in software design for designers and product managers. Design your software for graceful failures and help people when they get stuck. They won't tell you how great your tool is but they will remember how it failed and stopped them from completing a task. Keep the actual user experience minimal, almost invisible. People don't remember or necessary care about the actual experiences as long as they have aggregate positive experience without hiccups to get their work done. As I say, the best interface is no interface at all. Design a series of continuous feedback loops at the end of such minimal experiences—such as the green counter in TurboTax to indicate tax refund amount—to reaffirm positive aspects of user interactions; they are on the memory side and people will remember them.

In enterprise software, some of the best customers could be the ones who had the worst escalations but the vendors ended their experience on a positive note. These customers do forgive vendors. As a vendor, a failed project receives a lot worse publicity than a worst escalation that could have actually cost a customer a lot more than a failed project but it eventually got fixed on a positive note. This is not a get-out-of-jail-free-card to ignore your customers but do pause and think about what customers experience now and what they will remember in future.

Photo courtesy: Derek 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Focus On Abstraction And Not Complexity

I am a big fan of software design patterns. A design pattern is a general reusable solution to a commonly occurring problem within a given context. Software design patterns are all about observing technical abstractions in complex problems by identifying patterns and applying well known solutions to them.

My management style is largely based on abstractions. When things get muddy I step away from complexity for a few minutes and explore abstractions. This helps me keep in touch with the bigger picture while I look for solutions to a given problem. When you're too close to a topic you do tend to fixate on complexity leaving sight of the bigger picture. I make a conscious attempt to go between complexity and abstraction when I need to. And, that's perhaps the only way to manage it effectively in pursuit of working smart and not just working hard. Complexity invariably makes people get into an analysis paralysis mode resulting into a decision gridlock that affects the bigger picture. In many cases, not being able to make a decision has far worse consequences than not solving a problem which may or may not be important in long run. Abstracting complexity helps me make a decision with focus on consequences as opposed to a short term solution. Abstraction also allows me to spot behavioral and systemic problems as opposed to tactical and temporal problems.

Ask yourself what you remember the most about a couple of complex problems that you solved last year and the answer most likely won't be how great your solution was but it very well would be what the problem actually taught you. It's not the complexity that you will cherish but the simplicity, the abstracted experience, is what will stay with you for the rest of your life to help you find solutions to similar problems in future.

Photo courtesy: miuenski