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Notes from “Customers Included” by Mark Hurst

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to attend Mark Hurst speaking on “Customers Included”. Mark Hurst is the founder of Creative Good and is considered a pioneer of the customer experience movement. He founded the Gel Conference in 2003 that explores the people and projects that create good experiences.

His talk was a brief overview of some of the concepts and case studies in his most recent book, Customers Included. It was built around the premise that “if you are building something for customers, it’s better to include them in some way.” You would think that would be obvious, but he argues that most companies default to the opposite. His case studies provided some illuminating examples.

Bad experiences can significantly impact quality of life

The PlayPump seemed like a brilliant solution to a life-changing problem: how to get clean water in remote African villages. By replacing existing water pumps with a simple merry-go-round, children could play to their hearts’ content while their mothers rested and replenished much-needed water. It was so promising that First Lady Laura Bush stood side-by-side with former President Bill Clinton to bestow $16 million on the company from a combination of private donations and government funds.

Despite that ringing endorsement, the PlayPumps were not received with the excitement portrayed in their promotional video. Instead, many recipient villages were upset and leaders even asked those interested in bringing more to “Stop immediately.” Why? No one had consulted with the people who would actually be using them or compared to their existing experience.

  • The PlayPump took over 3 minutes of serious effort to fill a single bucket; existing handpumps took only 30 seconds.
  • Children aren’t infinitely amused by simple merry-go-rounds, leaving the women stuck spinning the giant wheel.
  • When PlayPumps inevitably failed (as any hardware is prone to do sooner or later), the parts weren’t readily available and thus pumps stopped working. Women were forced to travel several miles to the next village to get fresh water.

Revolutionary process doesn’t correlate to revolutionary experience

Not too long ago, Ford decided to revolutionize the way drivers interacted with their car dashboard. They locked top designers in an ideation lab for several months then released them to run their ideas through several rapid prototyping labs to quickly hone the basic concept into what they called MyFord Touch. They were so proud of their process that they expounded on it at design conferences.

When the first cars rolled off the line with the MyFord Touch installed, Consumer Reports gave the system terrible reviews. There were multiple major issues:

  • too many options without clear hierarchy
  • a cluttered interface with small fonts and too much information per screen
  • small buttons that were flush with the console
  • software bugs

The year before the MyFord Touch system debuted, Ford was 5th on the 2010 J.D. Power Initial Quality Study. The next year, they dropped to 22nd place.

Ford declined drastically in the J.D. Power Initial Quality Study following the release of MyFord Touch

Ford declined drastically in the J.D. Power Initial Quality Study following the release of MyFord Touch.

Asking the right questions

In 2009, Walmart began studying why a sizable percentage of their customers were defecting to Target. Their designers got together and thought about the differences between Walmart and Target. They came to the realization that “Walmart is cluttered, and Target is not” so the obvious solution seemed to be to declutter the stores.

Before pulling the trigger outright, they decided to implement a survey at checkout. They asked customers a single question: “Dear shopper, would you like it if Walmart was less cluttered?” The answer, unsurprisingly, was a resounding YES! Over the course of 2010, they decluttered the aisles and shelves, removing major brands and up to 15% of products in some cases. Store sales went down and even more customers defected to Target when they couldn’t get the brands they wanted at Walmart.

The problem was two-fold and both issues revolved around asking the wrong questions. Prior to 2009, annual growth was steady in spite of some customers choosing to shop elsewhere. Was the question ‘Why are customers choosing Target over Walmart?’ the right problem to solve? Secondly, they designed their survey to validate their existing assumption rather than to delve deeper and discover meaningful problems and solutions.

Walmart's 2010 annual report showed a disturbing lack of growth compared to previous years.

Walmart’s 2010 annual report showed a disturbing lack of growth compared to previous years.

One weird trick to include customers

Prospect Park in Brooklyn was not always the “gem” of the park system that it is today. In the late 1970s, it was dangerous and unkempt, with the few visitors hurrying past graffiti and burned out buildings. The city wanted to revive it so they put a help wanted ad in the newspaper and ended up hiring a woman named Tupper Thomas.

Lacking experience in park administration, Tupper opted to walk through the park and talk with the few visitors who still came to learn more. She observed that the majority of them were dog walkers, and her first major action in her new role was to lobby for leash laws that allowed them to unleash their dogs in the park during certain hours. This support enticed more dog owners to come, and the growth in visitors encouraged other people to visit as well.

Today, the park attracts more than 8 million visitors annually, with a variety of attractions like skating, nature walks, a zoo, sports parks, and picnic areas. But its restoration all started with one woman walking the park and getting to know the people who visited.

The famous counterpoint

“You’ve gotta start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.”

Steve Jobs

Mark concluded his case studies by focusing on the company that famously avoids direct customer research: Apple. Journalists and writers often represent Steve Jobs and the company as not buying into focus groups and ignoring customer requests. One quote is particularly poignant, “The lesson from Steve: don’t listen to your customers.”

Unfortunately, this representation is misleading. They may not run focus groups or customer surveys, but the entire turnaround of the company’s success since Jobs return is founded on a principle he shared at the 1997 Worldwide Developer Conference.

During the Q&A near the end of the session, an engineer asked what he had personally been doing for the past seven years. The tension is palpable even over the recorded video. Steve takes a moment to reflect and then looks up and says, “You’ve gotta start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.”

When the original design groups at Apple began planning the iPhone, they locked themselves in a room (just like Ford) but the difference was that they didn’t dream up amazing new features or whiteboard crazy ideas. Instead, they pulled out their existing phones and began discussing all the things they hated, all the problems. They put themselves in the mindsets of a customer, then they began thinking about how they could address the problems, and FINALLY what they would need to do technologically. But all of the best improvements that came with the original iPhone were built around improving the experience.

In conclusion

Mark’s presentation was engaging and memorable. The studies he mentioned are all covered in his book (Customers Included) along with many others. Based on what I heard, I am planning to read the book very soon, and I strongly recommend anyone else remotely interested in customer experience do the same.

Image credit: The cover image for this post was adapted from the cover image for Mark’s book.

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