Four kinds of failure (for Richard Branson)

I’ve been experiencing some pretty average customer service lately but it really all came to a head when I moved house recently. As I spent hours and hours repeatly calling VirginMedia, who were supposed to supply us with an internet connection, cable TV and a phone line, I had plenty of time to contemplate the ways that companies fail us. By my calculation there are about four types of failure. And, perhaps surprisingly, they’re not all bad.

  1. Might as well set a trap. This is the worst kind of failure (and the one I experienced – continue to experience – repeatedly from VirginMedia. You know this kind of failure, because you can feel the blatant disregard for your experience as a customer. These companies seem to go out of their way to avoid or ignore customer feedback. THis is clear in both their service design and any UI design you come across. It’s typified by long waits on hold, little and/or contradictory information provided, a strong sense that you (the customer) are being a pain in the butt and causing the company and it’s representatives unending trouble, user interfaces that are so poorly designed that it is inevitable you will not get to the end successfully, a sense of loneliness and hopelessness as a customer. Mistakes happen often. The company couldn’t care less.
  2. Could try harder. Obviously some effort is being made. Most of the information you need is available and reasonable (sometimes good) design is in evidence, but there are still major customer experience failures and no obvious feedback channels. Often the solutions to these experience failures are quite simple. Frequently they’re as simple as building in more feedback or simple error prevention. But often… these easy fixes don’t happen. Contextual research is required to identify the pain points to enable these simple fixes to be designed and applied. There is a lot of potential for improvement here.
  3. Thoughtful and Responsive.  Things still go wrong from time to time but you don’t mind so much because it doesn’t happen often and when it does, it is clear that an effort is being made to be responsive and supportive and to take responsibility for the failure. Failure is still frustrating, but it is no longer necessarily a negative exchange between the company and the customer.
  4. Surprise and Delight. For some, failure is actually an opportunity to make contact with a customer and learn from them – and having the chance to surprise and delight them. Kathy Sierra wrote of screaming users:

    “As Henry Petroski writes in To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design, we learn more from our failures than our successes.  But only if we pay attention to the failures and figure out what to do right the next time.” 

    Every now and then I fire off an email in annoyance, and every now and then, an actual human emails me back much more quickly than I expected and resolved my failure. Jeff Turner of Blogbeat (now Feedburner) did this all the time. Even when the server was down and I annoyingly couldn’t get access to the data I wanted, his quick and helpful response would always make me smile and think well of his company.

So, what’s the moral?

Failure happens, but through contextual research and good service and interface design you can minimise the negative impact of these failures and actually turn them into positive points of contacts with your customers.

Oh, and think really seriously before you sign a contract with VirginMedia.

Six steps to get the most from a conference

Conferences have a mixed reputation. I don’t get to many, but I really love it when I can. I’m at my second for the month now (at the IA Summit), and I think I have a strategy that works when it comes to getting real value from a conference.

Here’s my six step strategy.

  1. Fly Solo. Going to conferences without colleagues or a whole pack of people you know can be pretty scary. Do it anyway. There are some great things about flying solo including: meeting more people – if you don’t hang with your crew you need to find people to talk to, therefore you get to meet lots MORE people than you normally would. This is probably the best thing about conference – the people you meet and the conversations you have. Also, when you’re flying solo, you can really take advantage of serendipitous opportunities. You don’t have to worry about whether your posse wants to do what you need to do, you never have to check with your people. It is scary at times, but it’s also very fun. You learn, pretty quickly, that a room full of people you don’t know is actually a great opportunity, not as terrifying as it first appears. If you talk to people, they’ll talk back. People are surprisingly friendly like that. 
  2. Choose sessions tangentally. Don’t go to sessions that look as though they are ‘for you’. Don’t choose presentations where you’re already pretty familiar with the subject area. Unfortunately, most of the time you’ll walk out unsatisfied, feeling that you didn’t really learn anything. The nicest thing you can say about these sessions is that ‘it was nice to have what I already know confirmed’. There are much better ways to spend your time. Rather, choose sessions that are tangentally related to your interest, subjects that you don’t know much about. You’d be surprised how often the content is really related to what you do AND you learn things. (And you often get the chance to meet a whole different set of people to the ones you usually hang out with, because your ‘familiars’ are all in that session that you thought was for you. Make sense? Using this approach I’ve had a hit parade of great sessions where others at the conference were much less satisfied. (That’s why I spend hours at Taxonomy and Search Design sessions in the last couple of days. Time well spent, as it turns out!) Oh, and also. If you *do* find yourself in a dud session and your conference is multitrack – get out. Go find a better session. It might feel a little rude, but you’re paying to be there and chances are the speaker is being paid to speak. Make them earn it :)
  3. Don’t be a fangirl (or boy). One of the appealing things about conferences is the opportunity to meet some gurus. As such, it’s tempting to choose your schedule on a celebrity basis. This is often a big mistake. I tend to go for speakers who I don’t really know. Here’s why. The gurus spend a lot of time speaking and writing about whatever their thing is. You’ve probably read their books and their blog. They did three presentations last week and are doing two next week. And, they don’t come up with new stuff very often. Subsequently, whilst you do get the opportunity to see them in the flesh, you probably would have already heard or read most of what they have to say. This is disappointing. On the other hand, people who speak less often are more likely to put a lot of effort into their presentation and do a lot of preparation, AND you probably haven’t heard what they’ve got to say ever before. Some of the best presentations I’ve attended have been from people I don’t know. Much better to use Stategy 1 to meet your gurus. It’s scarier, but overall a much better approach. [sidenote: this also applies to going to presentations because your friends are presenting. If you know what they’re going to say, don’t go. disclaimer: choosing unknown speakers *is* a somewhat risky strategy. You may get some who are just not very good presenters or who could do with some more experience, or who are affected by nerves. In my experience it’s well worth the risk].
  4. Participate. Take whatever opportunities you have to get involved. This might be asking a question, or signing up for something that’s interactive/activity centred, or helping out as a volunteer with the conference (I’m helping out on the IAI booth for an hour or so on Sunday, for example). Again, this is a lot about talking to people, meeting people, engaging with discussions. 
  5. Twitter. Or whatever other back channel is going on at that conference. Sign up, sign on, get involved. Find out what’s *really* going on and what people *really* think. This is especially good where there are multiple tracks and you want to know if you should leave the dud presentation you’re in for a better one. It’s also a great way to ‘meet’ people you don’t know before you actually meet them in the flesh. That’s fun, and makes conversations easier and richer.
  6. Switch off the laptop. Face it. If you have the laptop on you’re probably not really paying attention. (Exemption if you’re live blogging the event for the benefit of those who can’t attend). Same goes with Twitter and other back channels. Use these with discipline and make sure you’re actually tuning in to what’s being presented. You can check your email anytime, but this presentation is a one off experience. Be there in body AND in mind.

So, there are my top tips. Anyone got other tips to contribute? (or care to add, amend or dispute mine?)

Happy conferencing! 

[ooh, gratuitous plug. If you’re at the summit and somehow managing to keep up with your blog reading(!), pls come to the panel I’m speaking on on Sunday at 11.15am. We’re talking about where IA fits in the design process. It should be fun. I believe there will a podcast posted later on for those who can’t make it.]