Episode One Hundred and Eight: Clarity; The Customer

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

NOSTROMO BLACK went so well last week that I’m off to New York this week for more. One can only hope that it’s not a sort of bug hunt and that the aliens we’re looking for are illegal aliens. Or, worse, that Carter’s sent us on this mission because he thinks it’s going to make him look good back at Gateway for the Company.

This means I’m doing more miles – zipping over to New York and then back down to the Bay Area the following week for some new meetings. And then it’s off back to England for TEDxLIVERPOOL.

One of the things I’m still trying to figure out is all the self-directed projects. I have one that I’ve kicked off and found a collaborator for, but need to, you know, *sit down and do the work* on PROMETHEUS RED. And I should, because everyone I’ve spoken to about that particular project has said it’s actually a good idea.

Ideas, time, too many, not enough of.

1.0 Clarity

I think a lot about the organisations, companies and individuals that I admire and they all appear to have one thing in common: clarity. They know what it is that they want to do. For Pixar, that means knowing, right from the get-go for Ed Catmull, that he wanted to make computer-animated movies. For my former employer, that means knowing that they don’t want to make advertising-that-looks-like-advertising. For Apple, they append it to the end of every press release (and it’s interesting to note how they describe themselves has changed over time):

“Apple designs Macs, the best personal computers in the world, along with OS X, iLife, iWork and professional software. Apple leads the digital music revolution with its iPods and iTunes online store. Apple has reinvented the mobile phone with its revolutionary iPhone and App Store, and is defining the future of mobile media and computing devices with iPad.”

This is sound-bite advice, of course. Knowing what you want to do feels like 90% of the battle, but of course, the “now you have two problems” – you know what you want to do and now you have to relentlessly execute upon it to do that the best. You have to focus and cut out everything else.

This is clearly a problem for a bunch of people. I take a look at all the stuff that I’m interested in, and it’s hard to quieten everything down and listen for some sort of wow signal[1] coming from my subconcious which indicates a sort of “concentrate on this now, because it is important.”

Some people might call this a calling – Catmull talks about how he was able to take some time out after university to figure out what, exactly, it was that he wanted to do. And then of course he had to figure out what he wanted to do *after* he had achieved his goal of creating a computer animated movie. Thus his book[2] talks about his next goal being building a sustainable, long-lived creative organisation that will last after he’s moved on. So Catmull’s got his personal goal and Pixar’s got its own.

I suppose some of this sounds like the 90s fad for Mission Statements[3], which ended up all over the place. I remember when my secondary school decided that it needed a mission statement, which is either an indictment of how bad education got in the 90s in England, or how invasive management techniques got in the 90s in England.

I think what I’m interested in is how clarity of purpose relates to being flexible to change: I’m obviously super interested in how advertising agencies are navigating the environment that they find themselves in, and you can be sure that if you’re outside the industry, for however complex you think it is, it’s way more complex on the inside.

Or, bluntly, is it? One of the pieces of cognitive dissonance that I experienced at Wieden was reconciling an early part of agency history “We don’t want to make advertising” that had turned into “We don’t like advertising” with what it was that the agency actually *did* and made on a day-to-day basis. Because, when you get to the heart of it, 1980s era Wieden+Kennedy assuredly did make things that fit in holes made for advertising. They just didn’t make them *look* like advertising. This feels like it opens up the opportunity for confusion: you’re an ad agency that says you don’t like advertising, but when you push, you mean: you don’t like *bad* advertising. Advertising itself solves a problem.

Against this, a background of change – especially and most obviously in the way that media and attention works. In Pixar’s case, because the goal was to make *computer-animated* movies, provided they don’t do anything stupid (and Catmull’s book is basically a long list of ways and means to avoid doing stupid things, or things that they might otherwise be blind to), it’s slightly more difficult for them to get disrupted or blindsided by technological advancements. Note that I didn’t say that Pixar *couldn’t* get disrupted – indeed Catmull explicitly talks about the business environment and pressures they found themselves under thanks to changes in digital distribution and the changing home video market, for example. Which is another reason why you should buy and read the book.

In advertising (or, for example, any other purely atoms-based business) – and this is one of the things that Catmull’s book hammers home – change isn’t taken as a given and organisations ossify around practices to the extent that, cargo-cult-like, practices get worshipped rather than the goal.

I suppose my point is this: if you’re at risk of being eaten by software, it really, really helps if you have the utmost clarity about what it is that you’re doing (and why you’re doing it). Because the *how* of how you’re doing it is inevitably going to change. And then you need to be bloody minded about the whole thing.

Advertising, as a way of communicating with people, obviously risks being disrupted. Media has already disrupted, been changed. All of this is to do with how Moore’s law has unthinkingly crept over our world. But that clarity of purpose depends on what you’re doing and how you’re approaching that task. On one level, subsuming “advertising” into “solving our clients’ business problems” is all fine and well – but agencies would do well to remember that often, their clients are asking them to solve their business problems *in the context of advertising*. And even though it may well be ill-defined these days with less of a clear-cut line and more of a gradient, more often than not, “solving a client’s business problem” in the advertising context means solving a communication problem *as well as* getting the attention of someone in the first place.

That’s a lot of problems to be solved. And in terms of navigating the transition from advertising to “digital”, clarity is incredibly important both internally and externally, and less a tightrope that is managed than one that should be traversed with honesty. If, from an agency point of view, you genuinely believe or support the belief that digital is an opportunity to “solve clients’ business problems”, and if you’re being tasked with approaching a brief from a fresh perspective, there’s going to be (at best) a tendency to want to find the root cause a problem that’s presented in a brief and then solve for *that*. The difference here is: are you solving business problems *in any way*, or are you solving business problems *using advertising*.

Because advertising doesn’t, most of the time, mean a product. It doesn’t mean a service. Those things throw up problems of their own regarding attention and take-up and rhythm of use. They may well be the answer to a *business* problem. They are not necessarily the answer to an advertising or communications brief. Which is why video will be alive and well answering some – not most, maybe not even all – communications briefs, because video turns out to be an effective communication tool.

All too often, the problem is not even asking the right question, or knowing what the answer is. Agencies – traditional ones especially – and I’m including digital agencies, in a way, as traditional agencies, are built around presumptions and patterns and habits of working. The agency/client relationship in advertising has evolved and settled over decades for a certain provision of service in a certain way. That means that clients – ie CMOs – are as guilty of being stuck into an established way of solving problems instead of solving the problem itself. This isn’t to lay blame necessarily, merely to recognise a fact: *advertising* is a way of solving a problem. An advertising agency being asked to solve a problem is already presumed to need to use advertising. That’s why they generally don’t get asked to concept other types of solutions for business problems. They’re not in their wheelhouse or purvue, and furthermore, the people sitting in advertising and marketing roles aren’t necessarily suited to buy solutions of those types. Because, again, advertising is a box or a tool.

I started this section talking about clarity of purpose. One of the reasons why is because I believe clarity of purpose is key to an organisation’s ability to handle change, and that once you’ve got a tightly defined purpose, you need to be able to execute on it. Wieden+Kennedy, for example, says that it exists to create provocative relationships between good companies and their customers and to solve their clients’ business problems. And one of my questions to their partners was: is there a big asterisk in there that says “with advertising”? This might seem like a facetious question. But in the context of *how problems get solved* and how we accomplish things, there’s a lot of grey area. Saying that those goals are accomplished in the box of advertising only is very different from saying that they’re just goals in general. What’s left unsaid is as important as what’s said – if I’m to borrow a leaf from Catmull, it would be to say that there would need to be a level of candor to say: these goals are solved with *advertising*. Advertising means x, y and z. It means a certain expectation of deliverable that, say, is slanted toward film or visual communication that our clients know how to buy. Or that there’s a plan in place for educating clients and bringing them on a journey on how problems *could* be solved.

But, ultimately, if an organisation’s goal is to make *advertising*, then, advertising it is.

All of this thinking has been around what I want to do next. There’s a clarity in the work of the Government Digital Service where they’re able to tape a sign to the window and say “these are our users”. That isn’t a construct or a demographic: it’s the delivery of state service. It’s the football-obssessed-teens, it’s not midwest moms who don’t have enough time but want to cook a healthy dinner, it’s not lapsed runners.

Much of this has led me to think about the state of healthcare – not just in the states, but the ‘states happens to be where I am right now. And kind of leads me on to the next section.

And yes, I realise the irony in me starting to write about clarity and then rambling on for several hundred worlds.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wow!_signal
[2] http://amzn.to/1j7VtTv (really, you should buy it and read it if only to stop me posting the link)
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mission_statement

2.0 The Customer

There’s a joke – well, less of a joke and more of an observation or an excuse or a slight – about the Microsoft some of us grew up with in the 1980s and 1990s. The general gist was that you and I – the end user who has been immortalised in the EULA – we were not Microsoft’s customer. Microsoft’s customers were Dell, HP, IBM, Gateway – the OEMs who bought Microsoft software en-masse and pre-installed it on the computers that we bought. We did not choose to buy Windows, the theory went – the OEMs did. The revenue that Microsoft derived from a direct personal customer was minuscule compared to the revenue from b2b sales.

This, so went the joke, went a way toward explaining why Microsoft’s software did so much and yet was still so difficult to use or impenetrable or plain unfriendly at times. I’m simplifying a lot, but Microsoft had to do the bare minimum of user research and testing to make sure that its customers’ customers were happy. And yes, Microsoft took on the support burden in the form of people calling up to complain that Windows wasn’t doing what it was supposed to be doing. But in the end, you followed the money, so the theory went, and the buck stopped at the OEMs and VARs.

I was talking with a friend about why there’s so much bad *stuff* in the world, and a lot of the reasons came back to “because it’s enterprise software, duh”. It turns out that “because enterprise” is just shorthand for “the person making the purchasing decision is not the person using $thing”.

There’s so much anecdata around this topic that you only have to sit down and *ask* someone who’s using a piece of software in their day to day job. Timesheet software that’s still being sold *to this day* that relies on you Java being turned on in the browser. Project management software. Hell, even *planes* are a problem. I was talking about how much I thought the new 737-900ERs were fantastic to my friend, and she remarked on a similar experience, but she actually asked an attendant if they liked flying the new planes. Turns out, the attendant didn’t: they hated them, and quickly rattled off 14-15 different things about the plane that made their job more difficult or more annoying or just plain not-as-good as the previous generation.

It’s easy to construct a story that fills in the gaps. It’s a convenient one, but I’m sure that it’s not a complete picture of the truth. But it goes a little bit like this: Boeing’s customers are airlines. The airlines’ customers are passengers. But the way that service is delivered to the airlines’ customers is a function of their staff (who use the planes – but in a different capacity to passengers) and of the physical infrastructure (the planes) and also of the other methods through which the airline delivers service (telephone, online or whatever medium).

So, just like with Microsoft and its customers, you follow the money. The money leads you to the biggest stakeholder, the loudest voice, the one that needs to be satisfied, the one with the power in the relationship. The one with the power to make the sale, the purchasing decision. And at an airline, that’s not necessarily the attendants. And also you have to ask yourself, in the position of the airline/passenger relationship: what’s the service being sold? It’s transport from one place to another. What will the market bear? Do people value comfort or cost? A simple look at Ryanair in Europe will show you that it turns out people really want to get to one place to another, and will bear quite a bit (nevermind whether or not you obfuscate the real cost of travelling and lead with a low headline rate).

How would an airline or a manufacturer discover that its new planes were causing grievous problems for its staff? By a customer (passenger) service questionnaire? You’d be asking however-many-whys to get to the root cause, which might be that a surly or ill-tempered attendant had just completed however many shifts on a noticeably *worse* plane, and wasn’t able to provide a great service to a passenger. But then would you ask the attendants why service had dipped, or would you even be able to discern the signal that service had dipped on the new planes? How would you tease that data out? (Using big data and new analytics tools, obviously – if you can hear my dripping sarcasm).

Or, would you ask the attendants in the first place? Would you place their comfort and ability to do their job *well* – not just efficiently, but comfortably – as well as the ability to maximise against passenger revenue *and* passenger comfort?

It is hard to see who advocates for the customer or the user.

Leisa Reichelt tweeted at me, a while ago – back in episode sixty[1] – about the concept of exposure hours:

“which is such a blindingly simple idea that you’re kind of surprised (and then when you think about, it understand why) more companies or organisations don’t use it. It’s just this: the more time your designers or product owners spend with end-users, the better designed those products or services tend to be: “There is a direct correlation between this exposure and the improvements we see in the designs that team produces.” And this isn’t just for design personnel – as soon as non-design personnel were included in the contact hours, the entire group would fall together. This is as much an argument for audience/customer contact across each functional unit or team across an organisation.”

It’s hard work to remember who the customers are. It’s almost fractal in the same way that some people say that quality is fractal[2]. It’s hard work to remember who the users are at all the times. But someone has to stand up for them, because *not* doing so is part of the reason why we have such shitty stuff everywhere. Because there’s been a link broken between the thing, and the people who have to use it because they don’t have a choice.

This is part of why I’m starting to feel angry about the state of healthcare, whether it’s in the United States or in the UK. I’ve written about this before, I think, talking about the fact that most healthcare services *appear* like they’re not delivered in any digital format whatsoever, and the ones that are, are delivered incredibly badly.

Part of the reason, at a naive outside guess, again appears to be “because enterprise”. Because it’s easy to buy software that *says* it solves a particular problem, and in a way, it does solve that particular problem. In the same way that you *could* do surgery with a kitchen knife. But again, I wonder if you blow away all of the accreted cruft and you take a look at who the users are and you look at the best way to satisfy their needs. It goes without saying that even doing *that* and asking a simple question like “who is the user” opens up a political can of worms in the case of healthcare (The insurer? The hospital system? The patient? The doctor? The nurse? The billing administrator? All of the above?) that, almost Brazil-like threatens to expose the absurdity of the current situation.

Where I despair, though, is in trying to figure out how you untangle the mess. Sure, there are efforts like Dr. Chrono[3] who appear to be going about the issue of better healthcare software bit by bit, like eating an elephant. But, you know: enterprise sales is enterprise sales. It’s very salesy, and in a regulated area like healthcare, you don’t necessarily get to “disrupt” the market in the same way that 37Signals goes in and ten years later, everyone’s using Basecamp for project management (for which: oh my god, Basecamp doesn’t mean better project management. It’s just a tool.)

But just for once, I’d like to go see a doctor and not see them be befuddled about the EHR screen. I’d like for their to be better handoff between shifts of caregivers. I’d like a service that actually understood my life and reminded me at the right time that I had a fasting test to be done. You know, maybe the night before, before I actually ate anything. I’d like to know about my results. I’d like to get my bills in a format that I can read. I’d like to book my appointments by using my phone, or even, perish the thought, *change them*.

These are base-level, bring-your-fucking-game, these things are *normal* now expectations. When I moved to Portland, Zoomcare, a local healthcare provider seemed *amazing because you could book an appointment over a desktop web interface. Three years later, there’s still no mobile interface. And the Americans I talk to are somehow Stockholm-syndromed into saying “but at least I can book online!”

Well, sincerely, fuck that bullshit.

We deserve better.

[1] http://newsletter.danhon.com/episode-sixty-we-have-always-been-at-war-our-independence-day-spimes-duh/
[2] http://ramenapp.net/post/53a4b26b35343800020a0000
[3] https://www.drchrono.com

It’s Monday. You should start the week off right by sending me notes about today’s episode and by forwarding it to people who’ll get a kick out of it.

Love you all,

Dan