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The Call Center Customer Experience

Posted by Alder Yarrow 12:48 No Comments

icn.seths.head.pngWaiting on hold to speak with someone in a call center has become one of the developed world's most despised experiences. The official study has not yet been done, but the call center customer experience is likely to to rate as more loathed than swimming with sharks or public speaking, both of which have historically engendered the most aversion among the populace here in the western world.

Why do call center experiences suck? Because (practically) no one pays attention to them. Marketing maven Seth Godin recently penned a concise prescription for improving your call center experience that I thought was worth sharing:

0. Spend a lot more money on this. Hire more agents. Train them better. Treat them with respect and they'll do the same to those they interact with. Have a bright red light flash on the CEO's desk whenever anyone, anywhere, is on hold for more than 5 minutes. If it gets to seven, have the call automatically route to the mobile phone of the CEO's spouse.

1. Have a very smart and very motivated front line. "I'll connect you directly to the person who can help you if you let me know what you need..." Don't have these people pretend that they can help. It leads to long conversations and frustration.

2. 80% of your inbound calls are about the same ten things. First, eliminate those problems in future products, packaging and policies. The best way to handle these calls is to eliminate them. Second, put clear, fun and complete answers to these questions online where they are easy to find. And third, hire talented voice actors to record engaging answers to each, and offer them as a first resort as a result of #1, above.

3. Change your onhold music to Bill Cosby and Woody Allen records.

4. Whenever the wait is more than two minutes, offer a simple way to be called back, and then make sure it works.

5. If you're closed, tell us the hours you are open and the relevant websites. Make sure the information is accurate.

As usual, Seth pretty much nails it. Very few companies ever think to do #2, which is one of the most powerful things you can do  with your call center, let alone any of the others.

One of the tricky balancing acts with call centers and the IVRU trees that generally precede them has to do with the value in identifying the kind of issue that the customer has so they can be routed to the person who is most likely to address their issue. Too many "press one for sales" prompts and the IVRU itself becomes a source for frustration. Of course, we're living in an age where a lot of people immediately seek to bypass such trees by pressing "0" or "#" or whatever they can do to get to a live person as quickly as possible.

Which brings us back to spending a lot more money on your call center to make sure that the people who pick up the phones are rock stars.

Status, Posture and the Physical Device Experience

Posted by Alder Yarrow 01:14 No Comments

I read with interest this morning an article published on the Harvard Business School Working Knowledge blog, in which researchers identified the effects that using different physical devices have on "confidence, more willingness to take risks, and a greater sense of well-being."

In this study, researchers found that the larger the electronic device used by the participant, the more assertive and willing to take risks they were. In particular, the researchers narrowed the effects down to the posture that the use of these devices produced in the participant.

Congratulations Harvard. You just discovered status. 

Theatrical performers, in particular improvisational and comedic actors, have been using the principles of status for hundreds of years.  Status in a theatrical sense refers to the way that both body language and speech act as cues to create a person's social standing and power. Status is rooted in our biology and occurs spontaneously in all social organisms, as anyone who has watched a group of male dogs, gorillas, or parrots interact can attest.

Because status is conveyed through body language, it is communicated in many cases unconsciously. Even though people may not be aware of the link between their postures and their perceived social status, the principles are still in operation, and are in many ways as powerful as sexual dynamics in our cultures.

High status body language often involves big gestures, erect posture, the amount of physical space that someone takes up, and (one of my favorites) how much your head moves when you talk.  If you want to command more attention and respect in a conversation, try keeping your neck straight, your head completely still, and don't bring your hands anywhere close to your face.

Low status body language involves slouching or hunching, with a compressed neck, lots of small gestures, especially those that involve touching oneself on the face or clothing, and a generally smaller amount of physical space taken up by the body.

Speech, of course, does the same thing, though there are many more culturally specific elements to speech.  In the Western world, there are known "low class" accents, such as Cockney, which have, through force of culture, become associated with lower status. 

The secret about status is that it not only works for the viewer (i.e. your posture and speech affect how other people see your status) but it also works for you. Start positioning your body and speaking as if you have more confidence and power. Lo and behold, you do. Provided that you do it correctly.

Consequently, it's no surprise that the physical postures associated with talking on a small electronic device like a smartphone  have a low status effect.  Pinched neck, hunched back, one hand near the face, the other often engaged in meaningless gestures.  

The research study in question found that people using a cell phone were much less likely to question authority. Specifically, the smaller the device used by a participant, the more likely they were to tolerate lateness on the part of the researcher.  And conversely, the larger the device used, the more likely the participants were to get up and go get the researcher when they were late coming back from something they were doing outside the room.

Body language, and its ability to dramatically change social dynamics is one reason that the benefits at HYDRANT include as many free improv classes as our employees want to take.  The tools of the theater are rooted in many fundamentals about the human condition, and are therefore extremely valuable in business, which is, after all, about working with people.
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Moving to Mainstream Spotify: Can They Regain Their Edge with Music Lovers?

Posted by Laurel Tripp 06:57 No Comments

The new Spotify ad to air on TV during "The Voice" Monday night is a part of a larger campaign meant to create a visceral connection between consumers and the Spotify brand. Spotify's need: increase active users to close the gap between themselves and Pandora (who has close to three times the amount of active users as Spotify). Their solution: increase awareness of the product to millions of potential listeners and differentiate in the crowded field of streaming music services by convincing music lovers that Spotify is "for music".

In other words, increase customer acquisition through an emotional connection.

This foray into traditional media is an interesting tack for a company so entrenched in new media, particularly social. Perhaps the new campaign will work. But the key to the long-term business success of these types of services lies in the true connections they create with their customers, not something created through a Madison Avenue campaign designed, tested, and executed to be "moving".

A Music Service Music Lovers Love(d)
Spotify started off as the the service with the best user experience (don't take my word for it; this is from the mouths of all my UX friends). Spotify loyalists could list out what makes it so great:

• The interface is more intuitive than Pandora.
• It is integrated with music you already have.
• It has a better algorithm for serving you music you'll like.
• It's just beautifully designed. It is Swedish, after all.

The original loyalists spent hours customizing their experience in Spotify, creating and tweaking playlists. They evangelized the service as they talked about it in real life and through their online social networks. As something that defines who we are, music (and the music service that supports it) is inherently sharable. As such, Spotify spread like wildfire, albeit in limited circles.

Facebook is for Customer Acquisition
The relationship between Facebook and Spotify seems to be a natural extension of music lovers wanting to share. But Spotify is in Facebook's bed to acquire customers, plain and simple. And it's affective. After the 2011 ability to publish Spotify listening activity on Facebook, the number of active users skyrocketed.

We've all seen this type of thing in our Facebook feeds...

• "So and so just ran 2.3 miles with Nike+."
• "So and so just played some silly game for the last 7 hours when I should have been working.
• "So and so just listened to these songs on Spotify."


The beauty of the Spotify notification is that you can play the same music that your friend is listening to - which is awesome when your friend is really good at uncovering hidden musical gems. But the catch is that you have to download the Spotify app to listen.


Bam! They got you. And once you start listening, that will post to Facebook and the cycle continues. Brilliant execution of Customer Acquisition: 101.

Facebook is NOT for Customer Satisfaction
But this acquisition strategy occasionally comes at the cost of the good user experience consumers have come to expect from Spotify. Certainly, if I'm a music buff, I want to share the new, independent band that I'm listening to (Facebook is for showing off after all). However, if I'm listening to Neil Diamond, I might want to keep that to myself.

This happened recently to a coworker here at HYDRANT (not the Neil Diamond part, but the inadvertent broadcasting of Spotify on Facebook). When he found out, he tried to disconnect the Facebook and Spotify relationship. In the process, he lost all of the playlists that he'd painstakingly created over the last few years.

What?!? You can't just transfer your account to an email? Nope, you have to delete your account and start a new one. Spotify is basically telling their loyal music lovers, "That'll show you! Don't stand in the way of our brilliant acquisition strategy! Muuuhaha!!!"

Rekindling the Love
Customer acquisition shouldn't feel like being held hostage. Considering the inherently social aspects of music, consumers need to love the service, not feel like they have no other choice. There are too many other options and consumers are too fickle for Spotify to continue to rely on this strategy. This is the predicament of an acquisition strategy that comes in direct conflict with user experience (and, by extension, their retention strategy).

Perhaps this is where the new ad campaign fits in: generating that old feeling of love of music.

But I fear this may simply reflect that they can't maintain the user experience that the original customers to Spotify loved so much. Instead of being "for music" they should be "for music lovers". And to do that they need to return their focus to the experience their users have with their product.


HYDRANT Blueprints

Posted by Alder Yarrow 12:25 No Comments



(click the images to view them larger)

Hydrants are like icebergs, didn't you know? Most of their mass is unseen, below ground.  This is an old blueprint of a traditional New York hydrant, circa 1905.  See them and more as part of the NYCWater flickr stream.

HTML 5 vs. Native App: A Good Overview

Posted by Alder Yarrow 12:45 No Comments

English: W3C HTML5 Badge in SVG.
As we continue to do design for the mobile components of our clients' customer experiences, we are constantly evaluating the platforms that should be used to deliver these experiences.  One of the biggest decisions that we and our clients have to make at the moment is whether to pursue HTML5 or a native (usually iOS) application.

So far, given the constraints, requirements, and audience that our clients have, we have opted for native applications or just plain mobile web sites rather than building applications in HTML5.  But it is only a matter of time before we see the benefits tipping towards HTML5, and a client situation that clearly merits that approach.

We recently came across (thanks to TechCrunch) one of the better analyses of the relative merits of each platform.  While we take some exception to the "equivalency" assessments that are made in this document, which is a bit biased towards HTML5 as an approach, it is an excellent summary.

HTML5, How to rethink your web strategy from faberNovel

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A Customer Experience Destroyed: The Merger

Posted by Alder Yarrow 03:22 No Comments

Corporate mergers represent some of the most difficult and complex actions undertaken in today's marketplace.  The bigger the companies involved, the more epic and convoluted the gyrations required to fuse cultures, balance sheets, operations, business processes, and brands.

Unfortunately, with the focus on all the complexities involved, not to mention the immense costs of such operations and the negotiations involved between the two parties, the customer experience can suffer as other aspects of business are moved to the forefront.

In recent memory I've had the opportunity to witness two massive mergers, and their impacts on the customer experience, simply because I was the customer in question for both.

WaMu > Chase
When HYDRANT chose Washington Mutual as our business banking partner, we did so, in part, because of the customer experience they offered.  Phones were answered by real people, their branches were pleasant to visit, and mercifully un-corporate in both their architecture and culture. The web site, in particular, was generally very well designed, and quite usable. While we didn't always get perfect service from the company, we did always feel like we were dealing with human beings in a setting that empowered them, and empowered us as customers.

In the wake of the global financial crisis, WaMu was snapped up by J.P. Morgan Chase, and the decision was made to retire the Washington Mutual brand.

Following the merger, I supremely regret not photographing the remarkable evolution of our local WaMu branch as a case study in how to obliterate a brand and everything it stood for.  While it may be somewhat clich├ęd to talk about a corporate giant 
The Washington Mutual logo prior to its acquis...

Every week or two I would stop by my branch to find something changed.  First it was the removal of the WaMu logos.  Then the multicolored pendant lights were swapped out for blue. Then the carpets went to at monotonous gray. Then the walls were repainted and the open plan teller stations were replaced with an utterly traditional bank of tellers hidden behind a long counter. Then they were further separated from customers by two inches of bulletproof glass.

Around about this time I started to receive calls from chipper and overly friendly "business banking specialists" who always claimed to have enjoyed meeting me the other day (even though they hadn't) and looking to build a relationship with me, a valued business customer.  I still get calls of this sort every six to eight months, as that is about when my local branch seems to get a brand new business banking representative.  In the branch, genuinely friendly faces in casual clothing were replaced by suit-wearing folks who were clearly following the corporate guidelines to greet all customers who walk in the door, and say "Thanks!" to everyone leaving.

During this time, of course, the WaMu website disappeared, to be replaced by Chase.Com. From a technological perspective, this transition took place incredibly smoothly, with no loss of data, functionality, or downtime -- a truly remarkable feat of system and data migration.  Of course, since then I've been stuck using a functional site that can do most of what I want, but a site that is horribly designed and riddled with usability issues (a redesign is in the works, and has been for more than a year).  The site, too, both in its experience as well as the brand it conveys, has lost an elegance and a humanity that it once had.

So why haven't we switched banks? Two simple reasons: we're not aware of someplace that offers all the services we want at a better experience and a better price (devil we know versus the one we don't); and secondly that switching banks is such a phenomenal pain in the rear that we can't be bothered.

These two reasons probably keep many customers appearing "loyal" to executives who read the reports on churn in their customer base following such a merger and sigh with relief.  But that doesn't mean that all is well. It merely means that customers remain satisfied.  But satisfaction is no longer the standard for customer experience.  It hasn't been for at least two decades.

Continental > United
I've been a loyal United Airlines customer for my entire life.  I got a frequent flyer number when I was just a child, and accrued 
This is the new United Airlines Logo that will...

Experiencing the merger of Continental Airlines and United as both a customer and a customer experience expert has been fascinating.  From a purely operational and business process standpoint, the merger has gone fairly smoothly. By smoothly, I mean that in the past 18 months of traveling, I have experienced very little interruption to the basic service that I expect from the airline: flights that go where I want them to, when I want them to, without losing my luggage along the way. Just as with Chase's subsuming of the WaMu experience, the basic nuts and bolts of the operations have continued. This fact no doubt represents a herculean amount of effort from the companies involved, and they should be commended for a job well done.

But just as with the Chase merger, the way that the brand experience has been handled can only be characterized as atrocious. 

Starting with the choice to literally merge the two companies' logos (the Continental globe and the United type treatment) the customer experience and brand expression of the company feels like it was cobbled together through contract negotiations.  You can almost imagine the discussion in the board room as the two companies worked through things.  OK, we'll get rid of the "U" logo and add your wireframe globe, but we're keeping the type (equally as bad a job as the new Microsoft logo, which has been catching flak this month). We'll keep our mileage plus program name, but we'll use your membership numbers. We'll take these pages from your web site, and merge them with ours.

The results have been almost laughable.  The United web site went from being one of the best in the business to having some of the worst usability of any airline web site I've ever used. The design language seems to change from one page to another, as it appears that literally entire sections of the United web site were replaced with the corresponding pages from Continental. The site's home page, for instance retains the old United.Com navigation bar, while the content underneath has clearly been pulled from the continental web site.  I count at least 15 different variations in typeface on the home page.

But it's not just the web site. All sorts of things have changed for me as a customer, and very few for the better.  Merging two of the world's largest air carriers and all their customers must, of course, necessitate some change.  But as humans, we don't like change.  Even changes for the better rattle us, as pretty much every major e-commerce redesign in history has proven (conversion rates and customer feedback often see a brief dip as people get used to the new site).  

But despite taking into account my own primal reactions to change, things with this new merged customer experience aren't just different, they're worse.  After buying a plane ticket online I now get twice as many e-mails with half as much of the information I need in them. The confirmation of my ticket purchase doesn't actually include the flight times or flight numbers.  I have to wait for a completely separate e-mail to arrive that has that info in it. Dozens of equally small aspects of the way I interact with my airline have changed, adding up to a simple result: dealing with my airline of choice has become more difficult, and more unpleasant, especially in an age where I am encouraged and even required to process my relationship with the company online.

The Danger of Mergers
Very few mergers leave customers feeling cared for and more confident of the combined entity. The reasons are obvious -- companies focus on the core business aspects of the merger rather than the "finer points" -- but to the customer, those finer points matter a lot. Because of the disruption inherent in such large corporate pivots, it can be all too easy for executives to chalk up rockier relations with customers to the overall turmoil of the process, rather than something that could have been avoided.  That turmoil can also mask the true damage that the experience can produce in customer trust, confidence, and loyalty.

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Ticketmaster: The Experience We Love To Hate

Posted by Matthew 06:32 No Comments

I love live music, but I often won't go to a live show if it requires me to purchase my tickets through Ticketmaster. I generally prefer small local shows, but occasionally a larger show comes through town that I want to see, and then my options are to either go on a Homeric journey to the box office (which seems to only be open between 2:00 - 2:30 every other Tuesday) buy from Ticketmaster.. This isn't really much of a choice. Like many veteran concertgoers, my disdain for Ticketmaster runs deep, and until this week I had gone more than 15 years without having to be a customer.

Recently, however, I spotted some last minute tickets for a show that I knew my wife really wanted to see. The show was playing that night, and I had no choice but to purchase tickets through Ticketmaster affiliate Another Planet Entertainment. "Whew, ok, I can do this, maybe it won't be so bad," I thought to myself. So I swallowed my pride and clicked the Find Tickets button. What followed, thanks to the Ticketmaster purchasing system and how it was reskinned by Another Planet Entertainment, was an incredibly horrible, frustrating customer. It was so bad, I've come to the conclusion that the people responsible for the design must have done their user acceptance testing by torturing kittens.

In all likelihood, numerous internal business objectives coming from multiple sources probably drove them to produce the current customer experience. Many models and methodologies exist for organizing objectives for a great customer experience. But it seems that Ticketmaster and Another Planet Entertainment seem to have myopically focused on their own business requirements, while missing, ignoringor consciously disregarding their customers. (Hint: treating your customers well should be one of your top business requirements).

Here is my step-by-step assessment of my ticket purchase experience.

1.) Starting with the show that I want to see, the seating selection process is sub-par at best. I understand that not all venues can have nifty 3D flyovers to show you your seat and its view, but this experience provided nothing but a clunky drawing to zoom in and out of to find a seat.... that was broken. The site only zoomed in on a pixelated area of the image... However scary, it is certainly possible that might have actually been the intended behavior.


2.) I've already choked down my pride and accepted that I'm about to be mauled by service fees. I hit the second Find Tickets button (isn't that what I started doing already?) and I'm greeted with a CAPTCHA challenge. That's OK, I understand you're trying to prevent scalpers from using bots to by tickets. Challenge accepted.

3.) Awesome! I cleared the CAPTCHA screen (and my 9th grade teacher didn't think I would accomplish anything). Next I'm greeted with a review screen. Yes, those are the tickets I wanted. My question is, why is my only option on this screen "Continue"? In short, this seems to be a useless page. I hit continue...

4.) Now I'm faced with a delivery option screen. Why is this a separate page from the confirmation screen? At this point my resentment is growing and I'm seriously considering finding another option for my wife and I to have a night out. I decide how I want my tickets to be delivered.

5.) Next comes the mandatory account creation screen, which only allows me to create an account with a weak password, 12 characters or less. Are you kidding? Forcing people to create an account at this point is a terrible idea. I suspect the drop-off rate skyrockets on this page. In the book Form Design, Luke Wroblewski explains how eBay increased their sales by $300M by NOT forcing their users to create an account in the middle of a purchase.

If you're going to force me to create a password, let me create a password that meets standard security best practices, including the use of alphanumeric, spaces and special characters.

6.) Finally, I've made it to the purchase screen, hallelujah! This page generally follows standard practices in terms of content and functionality, but the type is too small and the page is poorly laid out. The default options here include having the site remember my credit card info. After forcing me to create a weak password, I wouldn't trust you with a ham sandwich.

7.) Wait I've made an error. I cannot believe what I'm seeing. Or not seeing as the case may be. The message text is bright yellow on a light background, who does this!?


At this point I'm beginning to take the whole experience personally. By the time I figure out the problem, purchase timer runs out and I have to begin the whole process again.

8.) At this point I'm thoroughly frustrated but, like most users, I've committed too much time and effort to give up now. I have spent so much time and effort towards purchasing these tickets that I now have to by them no matter what. But the rage builds every second longer I spend on the site.

9.) My second purchase attempt was successful but still infuriating. Total time elapsed to "quickly purchase tickets" (also known as giving Ticketmaster my hard-earned money) has now taken over 20 minutes, and while they have my money, they also have the opposite of a good customer. They created a detractor - someone who plans on telling as many people as possible why they should NOT become customers. and its affiliates are an embarrassing failure from the standpoint of customer experience. As I enter my next (and hopefully permanent) boycott of Ticketmaster, I long for a bit of schadenfreude. Let us all dream of the day that another service comes along and de-thrones Ticketmaster and their legal monopoly. It would only take just a little focusing on the customer experience. I'm looking your way StubHub and Ticketfly.

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HYDRANT Helps Mohawk Change the Way Business Gets Done

Posted by Alder Yarrow 12:35 No Comments

New web site facilitates the transformation of a customer experience that is about much more than paper.

SAN FRANCISCO, April 16, 2012 -- HYDRANT announced today the launch of Mohawk's new e-commerce web site at  The site represents a redesign and consolidation of several existing web properties, and features a new brand identity designed by Pentagram.

As one of the world's premier manufacturers of fine papers, envelopes, and digital printing substrates, Mohawk runs a complex business supply chain with many different customers, ranging from design professionals to paper merchants to some of the world's largest corporations. The Internet has long been a key channel for many aspects of Mohawk's evolving business, but the company continues to push boundaries in the digital space.

"HYDRANT played a crucial role in helping us come together and envision how we might transform the way we interact with our customers using the Web," says Senior Vice President of Communications and Innovation Strategies, Laura Shore. "The strategy work we did together was the catalyst for a revolution in the way we do business and the kind of experience we can provide for our customers."

The company's new web site unifies Mohawk's business-to-business and consumer e-commerce offerings with marketing and product information that have historically been hosted on separate web properties. The consolidation of these web sites not only required an overhaul of the customer experience, but the creation of an entirely new technology platform and operations initiative that Mohawk calls the Unified Service Delivery Platform. From a few sheets of paper to an entire truckload, the new Mohawk web site allows designers, printers, merchants, and business customers to search, specify, and order any product that Mohawk sells.

"The HYDRANT team not only brought fantastic information architecture and design skills to this complex solution, they helped us think through and plan the very real implications of our vision for serving our customers however and wherever they want to transact," says Shore.

"Working with complex businesses that are dedicated to getting things right for their customers is always a pleasure," says Alder Yarrow, Founder and Principal at HYDRANT. "But Mohawk's long relationship with the design community, and therefore their understanding of good design, made them a particularly special client." 

The new web site, which launches today in its first incarnation, coincides with a shortening of the company's official name to Mohawk and the rollout of a new brand identity designed by Michael Beirut at Pentagram. New York based development firm, Avatar New York, provided front-end development, CMS programming, technical consulting, and managed cloud hosting services. HYDRANT provided digital strategy; requirements definition; a complete re-architecture and visual redesign of the site; and copywriting services.

About Mohawk
Mohawk is North America's largest privately owned manufacturer of fine papers and envelopes for commercial and digital printing. The company also provides a range of digital design, photography, and printing services including Pinhole Pro, a solution for professional photographers to create beautiful press products; Pinhole Press, a lifestyle brand for beautifully simple photo gifts; and Felt & Wire Shop, an online marketplace for social stationery, posters and prints.  A fourth-generation, family-run company since its founding in 1931, Mohawk is headquartered in Cohoes, New York. Products and samples are available through leading paper distributors and at

HYDRANT is a customer experience consulting and design firm that helps companies transform the way they do business with their customers across multiple channels. HYDRANT provides research, strategy, user experience design and technology development services for online, desktop, mobile, touchscreen, and offline environments. For more information, visit


For immediate release.

Additional information available from:

Alder Yarrow, Founder & Principal


The New Mohawk, Brought to You by HYDRANT

Posted by Alder Yarrow 12:23 No Comments


The new web site went live for the public today. The official press releases will hit the wires tomorrow, but we're excited to share the news. Mohawk is America's largest privately own manufacturer of fine paper, envelopes, and digital substrates for the high-end commercial printing business.

This new web site represents the consolidation and rationalization of many separate sites that were once part of Mohawk's web ecosystem, as well as a complete redesign from a look and feel perspective.  The new site's launch corresponds with a rebranding -- the changing of the company name from "Mohawk Fine Papers" to simply "Mohawk" and the rollout of a new identity by Pentagram.

We'll post the press release and talk more about the project in the coming days.


Customer Experience Observed #005

Posted by Matthew 02:11 No Comments


No, what you are seeing is not a staged photo.  I took this photo recently while driving through the Presidio in San Francisco.  The environs of the Presidio are currently going through major road construction, prompting some drivers to end up on one of several detours.  Even for veteran San Franciscans, navigating through the Presido can be a challenge. And that's without the apparent skilled help of Caltrans evidenced in the photo above.

As a long time UX designer/information architect, I can help but feel there is a larger message here.  Despite seemingly clear directions and implementing best practices, if the people who are doing the actual work aren't in communication with each other, you can end up on a road to nowhere.


How Bad is Today's Web User Experience?

Posted by Alder Yarrow 04:12 No Comments

Depends on who you ask.  But according to Forrester Research, pretty bad. They've just completed their 1500th web user experience review (a service you have to pay them for).  They started doing these reviews back in the late 90s, but that's still a lot of sites to review.
The jaw dropping statistic that everyone is talking about, though is that of the 1500 sites they reviewed, only 45 got a 

There are a few things required to put this into perspective, however.  The first is that, to my knowledge, Forrester doesn't 
Image representing Forrester Research as depic...

Image via CrunchBase

Do you think you could come up with a 25-point scorecard for web site user experience that would be nearly impossible for most companies to pass?  It would be easy.  You'd simply have to have a bunch of criteria like "must have the corporate phone number on the home page." While lots of companies might provide information or features on their site that would accommodate the user need behind your criteria, they wouldn't pass your checklist.

Having not seen Forrester's exact methodology, of course it's hard to say just how strict or rigid these criteria are. Some of the ones they mention, such as legibility, type size, links to privacy and security policies, run the gamut between incredibly specific, and quite subjective. What Forrester will tell us is that the average score that those 1500 web sites achieved was a dismal 1.1 points (out of a possible 50).

Leaving aside the obvious PR benefit of being the keepers of an incredibly high standard for web site user experience and being able to make announcements like the one they just did, the question that remains is whether or not only 3% of commercial web sites actually do offer an acceptable/passable/usable experience.

Anecdotally, our experience with our clients and prospective clients (which probably number in the high hundreds at this point) suggests that while Forrester's numbers might be a bit extreme, they're not too far off.  We might put the number of passable online user experiences at somewhere between 10 and 15%.

And the number of truly great online user experiences? Well, they are rare indeed.  

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As Seen on the Interwebs...

Posted by Matthew 01:58 No Comments

One of the most challenging (and one of my favorite) aspects of being an interaction designer is the rapid pace in which design research, design methodology and the design field as a whole can change almost seasonally. Having been in the software industry for more than 76 tech dog years (about 15 human years), a lot has changed, and more changes are coming. I'm excited about the potential and direction of interactive designs as it is used in the following projects.

Each of these sites uses fairly high-end functionality that is mainly found only in a full PC.  Although you'll be able to view them on your iPhones and iPads, you won't get the full experience.

Using the concepts of responsive web, HTML 5 and CSS3, the New Zealand tourism site is a fantastic example of what is possible as we move into the next generation of interactive design.  Immersing users into the full experience with your product, in this case the beautiful landscape of New Zealand, a fantastic experience is created as you navigate vertically through the landing page.   The experience compliments the navigation and draws the user into the site.  Measured against traditional usability standards I could probably identify a number of issues, however aside from some scroll lag, most issues take a backseat to the unique experience provided.  My guess is that the overall stickiness factor of the site is extremely high.  

The indie group named Arcade Fire has an interesting site for their song Sprawl 2.  To appreciate the full potential of this experience you should try and view it with a computer that has a web cam.

The trick here is that the characters in the music video respond to your movement as it is picked up in the computer's camera (e.g. you dancing along to the song) The implementation is still primitive, especially when you compare it to something like the Xbox Kinect but the concept behind it is impressive.  Using tools that many people already have in their possession it may become more commonplace to interact with your software in the future by gesturing and looking instead of using a mouse and keyboard as we do today.

This simple comparison slider has been used for years now and for the most part has been utilized by news outlets for various "before and after" stories but it also surfaces in a few gaming applications. 

The concept is simple enough but incredibly powerful. Within the space of a single image, users use a slider to compare to images.  The potential for this in consumer and retail applications is huge. Before long we will see this ported over to mobile devices like the iPhone and iPad if it hasn't been done so already.

As I mentioned, these sites are best viewed on a full PC. I'm sure you'll see these and more patterns emerge on mobile platforms as designers and developers utilize more and more HTML5 capabilities.

There are no shortage of new and innovative design patterns on the horizon that will change the way we view and interact with an ever increasing amount of information that is available to us. This is true especially as we see increased influence from mobile devices and their design paradigms on the now "ordinary" PC experience. 


Wrapped Hydrant

Posted by Alder Yarrow 01:17 No Comments


Inexplicably wrapped hydrant, alongside Highway 29, in Oakville, California.


The Photography Experience

Posted by Alder Yarrow 06:06 No Comments

News came today that Kodak may be close to filing for bankruptcy.  This will come as no surprise to anyone currently living today that owns a camera, and especially no surprise to anyone who has seen this graph:

Image credit: Flowingdata.Com

That, folks, is what the end of an era looks like.  Or perhaps more accurately, what it looks like when the world crosses the chasm and fully embraces a new innovation.  In case you're having trouble reading the type, the pink line is "analog" photos. The red line is all photos taken.

Kodak is only the most recent, and perhaps one of the most prototypical, examples of a company that faced a paradigm shift in the way that its customers wanted to live, and failed to embrace it. 

It's easy enough to be the armchair critic, however.  Figuring out where the marketplace is moving is hard enough, let alone where the future of technology might be.  But these two skills, along with understanding the customer, make up the key trifecta of knowledge that business needs to stay competitive.

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Customer Experience Observed #004

Posted by Alder Yarrow 07:11 No Comments

The Feature That Killed Your Productbad_iron_experience.jpg

Do you have features of your customer experience that seem like a good idea, but might actually be preventing customers from doing business with you?

Take, for instance, this lovely ironing board, courtesy of a mid-range business hotel I stayed in last year.  Some genius in charge of "loss prevention" has seen fit to bolt the holder for the iron right onto the most useful and usable part of the ironing board itself.  

That move, coupled with the extremely short leash that kept the iron securely tethered to the board (because, who would want to do their ironing anywhere else?) effectively rendered the whole setup completely useless to me. 

Now this is of course, one of those bizarre real world examples that is easy to chuckle at, but this sort of thing happens all the time in the world of high-stakes business.

Don't believe me?  Try this one on for size.  

A few weeks ago I saw a deal being advertised online: $100 for $200 worth of merchandise on the new Gilt Taste web site.  I've got a big party coming up for New Years and thinking I'd like to buy some gourmet stuff for the party, I jumped on it, and bought a voucher for $200 worth of merchandise.

I logged on to use it last night and ran into this completely head scratching experience on the Gilt Taste web site.

My goal:  Buy about 9 chunks of cheese, all different sorts.  The web site conveniently sells such things.

But when I had decided on my nine cheeses, I found that I could only add five of them to the shopping cart at any one time.

"That's strange..." I thought to myself, already annoyed, but willing to roll with it.  "What e-commerce site in the universe only lets you have five things in your cart at any one time?"

But the cart did offer me a consolation message when I tried to add the sixth item. It simply suggested I come back and place another order after I was done ordering these five things.

"OK," I thought, "that's kind of lame, but I can do that."

So I went through the checkout process, used my voucher, and then added the remaining cheeses to my cart, started to place another order, and... WAIT.  WHERE WAS MY VOUCHER?  I had only used about $115 of my $200 voucher, so I expected to see the balance in my account, just like I do with every other e-commerce gift voucher.

But it was gone.  After immediately canceling my order (which restored my gift voucher) I dug into the depths of the terms and conditions. You've probably guessed what I found.  

The voucher had to be used on a single order. All at once. No balance carryover.

Which would have been fine.  Except for the fact that the web site wouldn't let me order everything I wanted at once.

A user experience Catch-22, where you're screwed no matter which way you try to sort things out.   A call to customer service yielded a very pleasant conversation with an intelligent human being on the other end of the line, who admitted they probably needed to make the terms of the voucher "a little more prominent" and no explanation as to why only five items were allowed in the cart at once.  Essentially I was told that there was no way for me to order the products that I wanted using the voucher that I had.  Which led to Gilt losing the entire sale, as the only thing I could see to do was to get my $100 back from them and go be someone else's customer (which they graciously allowed).

A subsequent exchange with @giltsupport on Twitter surfaced the explanation that this "5 item limit derives from our flash-sale model. We want to give all of our members the opportunity to purchase!" Now, I can understand that when you're a flash site, and you're selling one item a day, you don't want someone buying more than five of them.  But when you're a normal e-commerce site, selling hundreds of products, not letting someone buy one each of six different items is patently insane.

Gilt Taste sees it as a feature.  But it not only killed my customer experience, it means I'll never be back to their web site.  

Every time you interact with your customer, it's a moment of truth.  Every touchpoint either builds your brand, or takes it down a notch. And it doesn't matter whether you think some widget, some business process, or some policy is a good idea. The only thing that matters is whether your customer agrees.  If they don't, you're in trouble.

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RIP Steve Jobs

Posted by Alder Yarrow 11:30 No Comments

Steve Jobs changed my life.  At the age of 12, I was a skinny, awkward pre-teen with a single mother, living in a trailer park and shopping for my clothes at a thrift store.  I had better grades than friends, and my idea of a good time was curling up on the couch with a science fiction book.

And then, in what retrospectively is clearly a staggeringly generous gesture, a boyfriend of my mother's bought me an Apple IIe computer.  

The worlds that opened up to me through that machine seem prosaic, even charmingly quaint, today -- Compuserve, Wizardry, Zork, Logo, The Oregon Trail -- but they completely redefined me as a person and literally changed the way I thought, and still do think.  My abilities, such as they are, to grasp and operate in the virtual world of computing technology, from things as simple as understanding computing logic and using a mouse, to the more complex understanding of what changes computers have wrought on global markets that lie at the heart of what my company offers, all lead back to those early moments with that big beige box on my desk.

Today, of course, my livelihood, my career, and some elements of my personal identity are completely dependent upon the vision of Steve Jobs and the company he founded, steered, and inspired.  While it would be possible for HYDRANT to do our work and be successful without anything made by Apple Computer, we wouldn't do it nearly as well.

Jobs almost singlehandedly brought good user experience and UI design to popular acclaim, not only because of the insane popularity and sales of Apple products, but because of the benchmark they continue to set in the industry for ease of use combined with beauty.

At 56 years old, Steve Jobs was far too young to leave his family behind, and far too young in his career. He changed the world in innumerable ways. It boggles the mind to think what he might have done given another 20 years.  

Goodbye Steve. You will be sorely missed.

About the image: this riff on the apple logo was designed by a teenage design student in Hong Kong, and went viral last night for obvious reasons. 

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We Fear Change. For Good Reasons.

Posted by Alder Yarrow 10:51 No Comments

Image representing Netflix as depicted in Crun...

Image via CrunchBase

Humans fear change. It's just what we do.  This response to perturbations of the status quo probably has its roots in our evolution, perhaps as a byproduct of our sensitivity to any changes in our environment. Spend any time on Facebook after they make even the most minor of changes, and you'll see just what kind of emotions changes in our online tools can evoke in us.

While some change is unavoidable, and indeed, essential, while you're trying to improve your customer experience, companies that have a great customer experience need to be equally careful not to screw it up.

This axiom of customer experience management was brought starkly into focus over the last few days after the announcement of Netflix's pending move to separate its streaming business and its DVD business into two distinct companies.  

In my opinion, this is a very bad move, as it makes their customer experience more complex, and more difficult to negotiate for their customers. 

CEO Reed Hastings suggests there are myriad business reasons for this separation -- various operational efficiencies, freeing each service to grow and change as necessary, spurring innovation, etc. None of his justifications, however, couldn't be handled by a significant internal re-organization.  Nevermind the fact that most of the mergers (a far more common occurrence) that happen in the marketplace these days offer exactly the same justifications for bringing two distinctly separate entities together under one roof.

Netflix has made one of the classic customer experience blunders -- allowing its own preferences for internal structure and process affect or even drive the customer experience.

Certainly some customers of Netflix only used one or the other aspects of their services, but many, including myself seamlessly switched back and forth between them depending on our specific situation and needs.  My wife and I like to sit down to a movie, but with our three-year-old, that happens only about once every six weeks.  So we've always got couple of red envelopes on top of the TV.  Sometimes we want to watch something shorter, or we aren't particularly excited about the movies we've got, so we jump online and stream something.   On occasion, when I'm on a business trip and have a couple of hours to kill, I'll stream a movie from my hotel room, provided the internet connection is OK.

To the Netflix customer, that decision and engagement process is all one experience -- the experience of interacting with Netflix. Now, however, the customer who would want that same experience is going to be forced to go to a lot more effort. I'll need to have two accounts and two logins for two separate companies.  When I search for a movie on one company's web site, and it's not available, it's not going to tell me that I can get it at the other company's web site.  I'll be dealing with two bills, two charges on my credit card, and two places to call and complain when something goes wrong.

There's a word for this in scientific terms: it's called "cognitive load" and in the internet enabled world, it's a poison pill that spells user abandonment, low conversion rates, and general lack of adoption.

Put simply, if Netflix had put the customer first, they'd never have taken this approach to their operational needs.

And don't get us started on the name Qwickster, which remarkably, Netflix doesn't even seem to own the trademark for!

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The Universe Of Medical Code Taxonomy

Posted by Alder Yarrow 02:18 No Comments

Information architecture and interaction design lie at the core of the services that we provide at HYDRANT. While we don't usually subject clients to our geekery in these areas, we can't help but delight in particularly interesting examples. 

The most informative bit of taxonomy we've come across in recent months appeared recently in the Wall Street Journal.  It's a compilation and exploration tool for the various medical codes that are used to describe every possible injury known to man.  At least in English.


So the next time you're bitten by an information architect in an opera house, you'll know what that ER tech is writing on their clipboard: W5581XA + Y92253

And of course, we couldn't pass up the opportunity to point out the usability problem with the duplicated pagination controls that are on the left instead of where they belong on the right....
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The Painful Truth: Most Customer Experiences Suck

Posted by Alder Yarrow 09:47 No Comments

Most customer experiences suck. They really do.  We all intuitively know this as consumers, and it's even more true in the business to business world.  It's particularly bad in the area of Financial Services, as pointed out so aptly in this post by Andrew McAfee of the MIT Sloan School of Business.

McAfee relates an incident with his credit card company that will bring sighs of commiseration and nods of recognition from anyone who's old enough to have encountered the world of Financial Services. 

I continually marvel at not only how bad these customer experiences are, but also how much they end up costing companies to perpetuate.  My favorite punching bag as of late is my bank, Chase, who continually sends me (no doubt expensive to produce and mail) marketing pieces about how I should consider Chase for a home loan.  Of course, it just so happens that I already have my home loan with Chase.

And if the banks and credit card companies are bad, the insurance companies are even worse.  In this day and age, my personal insurance company web site is completely unusable from a Macintosh computer, which means I am completely unable to pay my bill online, which means the company will continue to incur the costs of mailing me bills, and processing the checks that I send back to them until they fix the problem.

McAfee wonders "aloud" at when a financial services company is actually going to realize the competitive advantage of getting the customer experience right the first time.  It's a good question, especially considering that there's such a low bar for success.

HYDRANT was founded on the notion that customer experience could be a powerful source of competitive differentiation in the marketplace, and as McAfee has pointed out, that may be more true in the Financial Services industry than anywhere else.
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How Expensive Are Customer Experience Mistakes?

Posted by Alder Yarrow 12:26 No Comments

Inside the Walmart (still branded as Wal-Mart)...

Image via Wikipedia

"How bad could it be?" we sometimes ask ourselves as we face the daunting task of improving customer experiences.  "Maybe we can live with what we've got," we say.  Other times we charge ahead with the zeal of crusaders, off to make changes that we think are the right thing for our business, and therefore the right thing for customers, too.  Perhaps, if we're thinking straight, we proudly take a customer-centered approach, asking customers what they would like.

No matter what the scenario, it's easy to underestimate the impact of not getting a customer experience right. And what does "right" actually mean? That it works for customers.

We recently got the perfect case study for just how big such mistakes can get, courtesy of Wal-Mart.  What happened when they made a relatively small change to their customer experience?  In a short period of time they lost $2 Billion dollars.  Yes, that's billion with a "B."

The specific circumstances of this colossal mistake are quite instructive to anyone who is trying to push their company towards a more customer-centric way of operating.

Wal-Mart had the idea of improving their customer experience, and as a consequence, their sales.  They made the assessment that their shelves and aisles had become pretty crowded with merchandise.  SKU counts had gone up and up and up, and they wondered whether customers weren't getting overwhelmed with merchandise choices and turned off by the "clutter".  They knew that the paradox of choice is a real psychological phenomenon.

So they went out and asked their customers, in the form of a survey, whether they would prefer less crowded shelves of merchandise.  And what did the customers say?  They said yes! We don't know in what numbers they answered in the affirmative, but enough that Wal-Mart felt confident in spending the hundreds of millions of dollars it took to change their shelves.

This mistake illustrates a classic conundrum that we've come to know as the "Say-Do Gap:" the difference between what customers say they do (or want) and what they actually do.

Sometimes this gap is so large, that it's easy to fall into it, as Wal-Mart did.  One of my favorite examples, shared by a researcher I worked with a number of years ago, was the research into how soccer moms related to their Minivans.  All of them raved about the removable third-row seating, but when asked by researchers to show how they used the cars without those seats, it became clear that none of them had ever removed the seats.

In any case, this Wal-Mart case study illustrates two very important things about the domain of customer experience.

Firstly, it illustrates an equation that goes something like this:

V (volume of transactions) x M (customer experience problem or improvement) = $ cost to the business / increase in value

Not rocket science, to be sure, but it's quite important to recognize that the largest companies with the most customer interactions have the most to lose, and to gain, though problems and improvements to the customer experience.

Secondly this example illustrates the value of qualitative research methods rather than quantitative.  Qualitative methods, especially those based in ethnographic principles, put the researcher in a position to observe what customers to, rather than relying on what they say in response to surveys, or sitting in the artificial, peer-pressured world of focus groups.

And of course, this is a lesson in just how much customer experience actually matters.
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