Please don’t let engineers take charge of the product

And here’s why, from Douglas Edwards, Google’s brand manager from 1999 to 2005, who’s just written a book about his experience which he relates in this extract from an interview with FastCompany.

I mean, don’t engineers realize that most people run on different ‘software’ than code? And that this human software has its own inherent logic, which is different from the the logic of code?

“User interface was one realm where the communications team and the engineering team met each other halfway. Can you give an example of how you humanized Google?

“Here’s an example: the automated spellchecker. So Google had the capability of detecting if someone’s typed query was likely misspelled.

“The engineers said, ‘Great, if somebody misspells something, we should automatically correct it, do the correct search, and then tell them that they misspelled it, so they know we fixed it.’ The problem was, people don’t generally like to be told they made a mistake.

“The engineers insisted it was essential to tell the user they were wrong, so we launched with wording to that effect. But I knew from a marketing perspective that people would find that abrasive. And people were upset.

“They were pissed off that their search engine was correcting them–especially if they hadn’t made a mistake, if they were searching for a proper name that happened to be unique. Finally we changed it to softer phrasing. [Currently, Google says, “Showing results for…” and then the corrected query.]

“I remember arguing at the time, it doesn’t hurt us to take the blame–a search engine doesn’t have feelings. We should always be willing to take the hit, so the user feels better, even if they know they made a mistake.”

This isn’t a trivial issue when you consider how getting it right can impact on strategy & sales, and especially how you build a customer base. Just the other day I had my own small example of this when I sent out a newsletter with a call to action for the first 20 people who left a post on our Facebook Page Wall – in return for a ‘goody’ bag.

In the end 75 people asked for the giveaway. So are the 55 people who left a request simply to have their request be deleted on the grounds that they should have read the instructions, counted the numbers of posts, and not bothered once the list was 20 in total?

“Do not sell, absolute idiot” – An example of eBay seller feedback from 2005; eBay wisely removed the ability for seller’s to leave negative feedback in 2008.

OK, so coming back to Google, how about something really useful like a 73 page PDF on the best thinking and practice regarding customer engagement online? It’s called the rather cultish name ZMOT (zero moment of truth). So please enjoy – google-zmot

I have already extracted  a few golden nuggets which I’d like to share – ’cause sharing as well as competition is good..

(1) Don’t ask the kind of customer survey question like ‘do you use a smartphone to shop online?’ ask the question ‘do you use a smartphone to help you decide what to buy?’

(2) “Yes, people take the time to leave messages online about how much they love Scotch Tape. That’s because the effort is down to zero.” In other words the full range of products, from the very small to the very large, generate user reviews and content.

(3) Actually, my third point isn’t from Google’s ZMOT but from the recent Lithium webinar ‘LevelUp Your Facebook Strategy’.

When guest contributor Jeremiah Owyang, in highlighting the 8 key criteria for success, focusing on point 4 around ‘Living authentically’ (what the social networking deal is all about) highlights a key point – that rather than merely emulate your customer’s behaviour online – you should aim to:

“Live in the same behaviors that customers and consumers are.” 

‘Thinslicing’ is the term for the behaviour of customers who “tend to ignore most information available and instead ‘slice off’ a few relevant information or behavioral cues that are often social to make intuitive decisions”.

Makes sense that being on the same wave length as your customers is going to work well for social media, and for the business bottom line. But as the introduction to the webinar plainly stated, customers have changed with social media and mobile technology but by and large business practice has not. It relates in large part to the follow-on criteria, to enable your customers to do it for themselves, to have discussions without relying on your input.

Quality starts at home!

Let’s face it while there are plenty of experts on the subject of business change in the era of social business how many actually confront what’s really holding things back? Letting go of that ‘elephant on the table’ both internally and externally with employees and customers goes to the heart of the matter, where the potential win is huge but the risks are big too. (Check out this post from Christoph Schmaltz on that subject, and how Headshift approaches these complex issues).

This is why for example in a recent discussion ‘ I had with Phil Bush, director of strategic planning at Oracle, on the possibilities for enterprise use of social tools I focused on the key problem in integrating these transformative technologies in with business processes to drive results. And I’m guessing it’s probably what the CEO of Salesforce Marc Benioff was referring to last week at Dreamforce 2011 when he wondered when the first CEO was going to suffer as result of his/her inability to engage using social tools with their customer and employees.

It ain’t easy. But one  tried and tested answer to help employees adapt to new ways of working is the practice of empowerment, which at its simplest as outlined in ‘Empowerment Takes More Than a Minute’ involves three basic principles:

1. Share information with everyone (externally, and internally)
2. Create autonomy through boundaries
3. Replace hierarchical thinking with self-managed teams

OK, sounds that’s one possible answer. But not everyone is convinced, and for good reason – the nature of how knowledge works in a networked world:

“Never mind that there is much rhetoric about the need for leadership at all levels, or about the empowerment and democratization of workers in organization X or Y.  “Performance management, grade levels and compensation have yet to recognize how work gets done in networked environments and in a networked world.”

Despite these objections hope remains so long as there is passion and determination to drive the business forward. Tying the power of consumer and business transformation together using social tools sounds utopian to some, but to others it’s the basis of their disruptive business model, as outlined in the recent Forbes piece ‘Social Power and the Coming Corporate Revolution’. Referring to HearsaySocial‘s internal social tool set it neatly makes that very link:

“Hearsay’s tools presume something elemental in a world of social power: that the empowerment of employees is directly tied to the empowerment of customers—because they will inevitably end up working, maybe even conspiring, together.”

Sounds like it’s time for action..@stuartgh

3 thoughts on “Please don’t let engineers take charge of the product

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