Our latest POV on how customer experience drives everything from concept and creative to design and technology

The Most Valuable Word for Marketers in 2016 : USEFUL

(How new behavioral economics research & user-centered design will impact your strategy this year)


As we begin the new year, here’s a shout-out to a word that has held its own, humble and steadfast through all trendy buzzword storms. Let it lead us through the next 12 months as a guiding principle:


I’ve been told Useful
is uninteresting,
not sexy,


But over the past 18 years, it’s been one word that stuck with me, through thick and thin.


Ah, the value of something that is Useful…common sense, when you think about it, right? Websites, portals, apps, email campaigns, even data strategies! They’re all better when they’re useful to the person they are intended to serve.


People like Useful. I like Useful too. I credit my design training at the University of Cincinnati for my appreciation of Useful. In studio reviews, professors scoffed at “cool” designs and demanded instead to know how well the solution solved the assigned problem. As students, we quickly learned that half of the design challenge was figuring out the real problem to solve. We mostly got it wrong and were sent back to the drawing board.


Getting to the real business problem is key to creating the most Useful solution.

What we learned in the studio was that we must ask the right questions to get to the root problem. Only from there could the best, most useful (and beautiful) solution be hammered out. There are often many nice solutions hovering out there – and they can seem sparkly, sexy, and so easy! But they are often solutions to another problem, not ours. And if we apply them to our problem, we find that those sparkly solutions create their own difficulties. This is certainly true beyond the studio – the world is full of sparkly solutions that don’t really solve the problem at hand.

Maintaining objectivity and curiosity allows us to ask the right questions Identifying the right questions involves both the stamina to keep an open mind and curiosity (including a willingness to sound a bit stupid as we ask the seemingly obvious). The payoff can be worth it however: asking the right questions allows us to unearth the real problem to be solved, and so we begin on our journey to a Useful solution.



So how do we get to Useful? And Why?

At the Behavioral Economics and Marketing Summit held last October by McKinsey & Co. and Yale University’s Center for Customer Insights, the big talk was about steering marketing efforts (and budgets) away from creating/building upon customer beliefs (how they think about a brand or product) and more towards assessing and acting on customer behavioral data (what they are actually doing). Why? Because we are gaining new insights about customers through behavioral data: yes, people have beliefs about what they like, but they behave in ways that contradict those beliefs. And they often do this without realizing it.


The presentations at the Summit demonstrated, through research findings and behavioral economic theory, thoughts on how to address customers through a better understanding of their behavior. Many of the discussions specifically examined customers expressing belief in a brand in a closed environment (a focus group, for example) but acting contrary to that belief in a different environment, with external influences (at the point of purchase, for example).


What was the takeaway from the Summit?

There were many, but here are two worth thinking about as you plan your Useful 2016:

  1. Reconsider your Customer’s Environment(s), and Adapt Your Process/Business/Relationship Immediately.
    Traditional marketing methodologies are not going to work for you the way they did in the past, mostly because of new environmental factors (Hey, maybe those traditional methods never worked at all? It sure felt like they did. We just couldn’t tell for certain.) ‘Classical’ marketing methodologies aimed at getting inside a customers’ head, like surveys with unintentionally leading questions, or focus groups that take the customer out of the context of their lives, are fast becoming irrelevant. Why? In the digital environment, information is available 24/7, and our target is probably a highly distracted audience bobbing along in a sea of messaging clutter that spans multiple channels. The reality of being human is that our behavior changes depending on which external influences are present in a decision-making moment. In the cluttered, channel-packed world we live in, our very real external influences (think: managing children while shopping) are the rule, not the exception. What is important to our customer may change, depending on the context of the conversation, or the mindset of the person making the decision. The nature of the environment necessarily changes the strategy for marketing success.

  2. Work hard to Understand What, When and Where – not Why 
    The process we use to understand our customers must become more anthropological than belief-oriented. This means spending less time trying to understand what something MEANS to a customer, and more time tracking and analyzing what a customer DOES. And more exactly, what they set out to do and then actually accomplish in a specific environment, with external circumstances influencing their decisions. 

As I sat in a room of CMOs, Innovation Directors, analysts, agency leads and consultants at the Summit, I was surprised to find all this talk of meaning versus action so familiar. Here’s why: to a designer, the behavioral study of people is a cakewalk. It is the surest way to go about uncovering The Problem to Solve, because design is best when it serves humans well. And to serve well, you have to know what the need is, before it becomes a need. Understanding behavior is the everyday chase for a designer; we just don’t talk about it in those terms. In business terms, what we solve for through the behavioral study of people (customers) is called the User Experience.

User experience research…customer journey mapping….uncovering user intent – these are ways we understand what someone (possibly our customer) does to get something (hopefully business with us) done. Creating the right User Experience is simply figuring out how to fit our business into a customer’s busy day in a positive way. (The second part of that last sentence is really important, btw.)

Fitting our business into someone else’s busy day in a positive way is my definition of Useful. Once you are Useful, you’re in. Sure, we can build on Useful…surprise, delight, yadda yadda yadda… But those buzzwords only expand on the core concept of Useful. To be truly Useful, so many conditions must be met before delight can come into play, so let’s stick with the basics of Usefulness first.


(The ABC’s of Achieving Useful Status With Customers) 

  1. Say it out loud: We really don’t know our customers. Because how could we, really? Especially if we are addressing them in a digital environment, behavioral research is key. Yes, even if they have been our customers for years. Think of it this way: if we were launching a product/website/application in a foreign country, in a new language, with a new religious culture to account for in the customer relationship, would we say outright that “we know our customers” before doing research? Doubtful. Coke wouldn’t. And neither would Nike.

    Think of doing business in the digital sphere in a similar way. There are many new behaviors to account for, and new external factors as well, not least among them time (24/7 availability – regardless of time zone), access (mobile, anyone?) and competition (your competitive market changes just by entering the digital space, guaranteed). Doing business in the digital marketplace means identifying the new problems first, and those problems won’t be found by guessing what people might do. Focus groups might give us feedback that will get us to an Idea, but making ourselves Useful requires more than an idea, it requires adapting business to fit actual existing customer behavior.

    This is a critical concept to take on, because our understanding (or misunderstanding) of customer customer behavior can equate to the adoption OR rejection of our business offering by the intended audience. Knowing our customers means taking a hard, behavior-focused look at them. What do they do? When? How? This is the information that leads us to a real understanding of how to best do business with them. Concentrate on What, When and Where…not Why. Think Jane Goodall, not Sigmund Freud.

  2. Say the Pledge every morning: “We prioritize functionality for the customer, not the business.” Useful means that a customer doesn’t really have to work too hard to get what they need. Including functionality (or content) in a product/website/email blast that makes people’s eyes glaze over is not Useful. It is Hard. Stay away from Hard if you want to be Useful. Eyes Glazing Over (or EGO) happens when a solution goes to market based on faulty intelligence about what the customer might want. 

    How do we know what functionality (or content) to include to be useful to our customers? When studying customer behavior results, we should prioritize whatever “it” is that makes it easy for them to take the next step towards where we want them to go – we consider ourselves successful if it occurs to them that they NEED to go there. A good start is to associate our brand with something customers are already doing, and make what they are already doing easier for them. Or if it is a new offering, we can “bundle” it with something that is familiar.

    Why all the fuss over making things easy?  Because change (or new experiences) can be disconcerting, and make people uneasy. If its not easy, chances are customers won’t be as interested as we would hope. And that isn’t good for business.Professor Ravi Dhar summed it up nicely in his presentation on overcoming customer inertia: 


“Change = friction in a person’s experience”

If we’re offering something new, or even something familiar but offered in a new environment, in order to get everyone ‘over the hump’ to a new Useful experience, we must attend to User Experience and Service Design principles:

  • Don’t waste peoples’ time 
  • Be helpful always, but especially when you need customers’ attention
  • Make it easy on purpose

Active attention to these three things while planning means we are on the way to Useful. 

*Note: this prioritization method may fly in the face of product deadlines, corporate promises, marketing strategy, etc. But listen closely, because this is important: if customers don’t adopt fast, all future plans for (or profits from) our new, amazing campaign/product/application are moot (for all you marketers out there, ‘adoption’ is synonymous with ‘conversion’). Once people adopt, we can talk marketing strategy. Until then, our first priority thought is this:

Adoption = Success

Therefore, we design for Adoption. Which follows that in order to be Useful, we’re designing for the customer first.

A. Just Do It: TEST

Please. Observing customers’ behavior in the digital environment is very telling. There is no opinion so strong as that of a customer giving up on our product/application/e-commerce site after a first try, never to return. Nobody wants that, especially not our customers, believe it or not. So instead of waiting for that vote of no confidence in the end result, we ask them to try it out as we plan and develop our solution. Remember, as we work to achieve a Useful solution, we want to make it easy, and avoid EGO. Before delivering “what a customer might want” in terms of functionality or content, we must test it with customers before it is implemented. Not surprisingly, the topic of Test and Learn was a big part of the Behavioral Economics Summit. Marketing Professor Shane Frederick outlined common obstacles to the test and learn process, and #1 on the list was… fear.

What are we afraid of? How to begin seemed to be the answer:

  • What do we test?
  • How do we collect data?
  • How do we analyze data?
  • How do we design a study? 

Again, these are all common User Experience Design practices. Each one of them. Planning and running a behavioral test is a key part of understanding the problem so that we can know better how to solve it. As discussed earlier, designing a Useful solution includes getting to a deep understanding of the real problem. Think of car design, or any industrial design effort for that matter. How a car fits a human form is key. All human factors are tested before a car ever goes to market, and the end driving experience must align with a driver’s form and behavior as an experience greater than the sum of its parts. While this may be a new way to think for traditional marketing methodology, market success through designing for the human experience is standard best practice for Design Thinking and User Experience disciplines. What the Behavioral Economics summit was putting out there is that new methodologies are now required for market success. The theory now needs to be put into action.

In a section of his presentation called “Bad Medicine” Frederick also pointed out an interesting (but very common) problem in corporate marketing environments:

“The people most likely to act have the worst intuitions.”

In other words, going to market with solutions designed by a stakeholder who believes the product/application/website is exactly what THEY would buy/use/download/read is a bad plan. Every time. Why? Because while that enthusiastic stakeholder is certain in their belief, they are merely guessing about how others might actually behave in a similar situation, and likely erroneously guessing about their own behavior. Testing actual customer behavior relieves the pressure and the expense of belief guessing. Behavioral testing assesses WHAT our customers do, not why. If we are only asking WHY, we are missing critical but unseen factors which will derail our progress towards Useful.



In a different presentation, “Why Test and Learn”, Professor Nathan Novemsky referred to those same unseen factors as “The Iceberg”. If we are only asking customers WHY they do certain things, we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg. His point was compelling: people actually don’t really know why they make decisions, or complete certain actions. They do however believe they know what they would do, because of who they understand themselves to be and their life experiences. In reality, there are a number of factors that influence decision-making that are a result of the way our brains are programmed from birth. These factors are not fully understood by us “in the moment” as we make decisions. (Successful retirement savings solutions based on Behavioral Finance principles are great examples to demonstrate how this funny brain of ours works, and lead us to strongly consider the implications behavioral finance concepts may have in other areas of consumer life.) 


That mountain of factors which influences customer behavior in small but compelling ways is “the unseen part of the iceberg”. So it follows that if we plan our approach to our product/application/campaign/e-commerce experience on WHY our customers say they might want something, it is akin to sending our entire offering on a Titanic-like voyage. Those icebergs inevitably sink a lot of efforts that seemed like great and useful solutions at the start. On the other hand. testing behavior (WHAT, WHEN, and HOW) points us to real, clearly visible problems to solve. Fixing those problems gets us solidly on track to delivering something Useful.


Earlier I promised to answer the question ‘Why Useful?’ OK, here’s why we should pursue Useful:

Useful = Adoption

 And if Adoption = Success, it is success supported by DATA.


Let’s do the simple math: If no one is adopting our product/application/e-commerce site/email campaign, there is no data. And we all know that very few things in this business world of ours can go very long in market without some kind of report generated for somebody about something.


Data is the storyline. Data shows improvement, or improvement opportunities. Data can prove that we actually did what we set out to do. Of course, Data in itself is a pretty dry way to define success; but in the business world, dry beats ‘cool’, as long as it is Useful. And data can be very, very Useful.


Data is created by user behavior, and user behavior is better understood through the data from our product’s/website’s/application’s use and re-use. The more useful something is, the more it will be used, and the more it is used, the more data our businesses gain from customers (and if it is something exceptionally Useful, those customers quickly become fans). More data informs a better understanding of our customers, and because of that understanding a better experience can be delivered over time, increasing the closeness between the customer and our brand. As that cycle plays out, businesses and customers win together. How very Useful.


Happy 2016! May you and your business be Useful and prosperous in the coming year!