Archive for the 'User Experience' Category

Online strategy and the Renaissance

I’ve stumbled upon an unlikely metaphor to illustrate the polarity in approaches often applied to implementing online strategies at established behemoths of industry, and eager upstarts with little more than a domain to their name.

A couple of years ago I found myself navigating the stonewalled alleys of Florence, close on the heels of our tour guide who substituted Pied Piper’s flute with an orange umbrella. Deftly, she’d use the beacon to draw our attention to the bronze baptistery doors of Lorenzo Ghiberti, make note of the outdoor art adorning the Piazza della Signoria, and by day’s end lead us to the entrance of the city’s famed San Lorenzo leather market.

This partially engaged and desperate attempt to “do Florence” with minimal fuss or stress resulted in the city’s inescapable dome and postcard-perfect bridges being mere geographical points of reference – devices to help find our way back to our hotel, or locate that orange umbrella should we get lost.

Earlier this year, my Father’s Day bounty included tomes on the Renaissance, on the Medici family who had a dark and complex relationship with the city of Florence and bequeathed it an indelible legacy, as well as first-hand accounts of life in the city.

Suddenly, that gargantuan dome became Brunelleschi’s dome, whose improbable construction is an audacious miracle of architecture.  Bridges like the postcard-perfect Ponte Vecchio had their own history.  And as for that leather market, tucked away around the corner waiting to be explored stood a façade-less chapel adorned with Michelangelo’s first dome.

So what is the allegoric relevance of my travels to how traditional organisations execute online strategy, and how start-ups succeed at capturing our imagination?

So-called anointed champions of online at many organisations are akin to the disconnected and fleeting tourist I was in Florence.  They opt not to stray too far from the security of their comfort zones, rarely embracing the online habitat of their customers.  They rely on others to create a new experience for customers, content with extending their already impressive vocabulary of jargon the way I collected postcards and fridge magnets.

Contrast that with entrepreneurs at start-ups, who are like immersive travellers spending months learning a new language, studying the history and culture of the towns and communities they’ll encounter on their itinerary.  At the end of their journey, they come away with richer experiences and new found perspective.

Everyday, countless visitors to Florence are fortunate enough to enjoy the murals adorning the walls of the Hall of 500 at the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s city hall.  Only a handful would be aware that it’s most precious treasure just might remain invisible.  On a hidden wall behind Giorgio Vasari’s paintings of the Medici’s military victories is believed to be Leonardo da Vinci’s largest painting ever – The Battle of Anghiari.

Wonder if the orange umbrella toting guide would know where to look?

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I Giorni Migliori

It is an irony of the internet age that its biggest enabler, the telecommunications industry, is often perceived as being dormant as those around it have disrupted, innovated and reinvented themselves.

To be fair, few industries have escaped ridicule when evaluating the merits of their internet strategies.  Consider the much maligned print media industry which has had its fair share of criticism over the years, but only because the web so dramatically levelled the playing field for every armchair wannabe journalist.  Or the financial services industry, where the most innovative ideas have come not from bellwether financial institutions, but from new entrants – think PayPal, Mint, and Kiva.

And yet, within both the print media and financial services industries, old world players have made significant progress towards meeting their customer’s ever-evolving expectations.  Old world brands who’ve survived the transition from a pure bricks-and-mortar existence to providing services in the Cloud may lack creativity and rarely excite you, but chances are you know how to navigate your favourite online newspaper site to get the scoop on your favourite sports team, and can schedule monthly payments for all your household utilities using internet banking with aplomb.

So when I read on my Twitter feed that eBay was “offloading” Skype – not to a pipes-and-tubes Telco, but a venture capital firm – it got me thinking.  Are Telco’s truly content playing plumber to the Googles of this world?

Here are five things that should start to change, as Telco’s work hard to earn online cred with customers –

  1. Transition focus from “dotcom” to “platform” – It matters not how many websites we build and maintain, it’s platforms that deliver a complete customer experience across channels (think Google Applications and iTunes), and provide opportunities to monetize in spades.
  2. Build a strong social media competence within the enterprise – Social media is being recognised as less of a fad, and more as a way of interacting, collaborating and building communities, not just with customers, but also within an organisation.
  3. Offer real-time experiences – The immediacy afforded by the internet has meant that businesses can anticipate and respond to customer needs like never before.  LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook are not websites, but platforms that allow businesses to tap the stream of conversations across social connections for targeted offers, incentives and myriad value-adding services.
  4. Develop new customer personas around unique experiences – Existing market segmentation strategies quite often take a myopic view of customer circumstances and preferences.  Today’s customers are evolving, and existing segmentation profiles are becoming less valid.
  5. Pursue disruptive innovation – Services like Google Voice will significantly impact how traditional Telco’s market their products and services.  Telco’s will start to revaluate what their cost and revenue drivers are, and challenge existing theory on how they provide value to customers.

The future is anything but bleak for Telco’s.  In fact, now is the time to leverage the gains across other industries – to learn from their foibles and glean insights from their successes.

Finally, apropos of nothing, I should mention that as I type, I’ve been listening to an Italian song by the group Taramancino called “I Giorni Migliori”.  A Google translation reveals it roughly means “Best Days”.  It’s a song I first heard on an internet radio station, and subsequently bought via Apple’s iTunes store. I did all this on my iPhone.  It’s one helluva platform – really.

Innovating, by embracing the past

Over at the apnakoi blog, I wrote about how traditional matrimonial websites have failed to leverage existing social connections amongst its users.

Here’s an excerpt…

Long before the internet became a household utility – in fact long before dial-up connections, or even the humble dial-tone – families indulged in matchmaking by tapping into far reaching social networks within their existing communities.  Chances were a relative, neighbour, or co-worker knew someone, who in turn knew someone, perfect for their son or daughter. Due diligence was reasonably effortless, with shared acquaintances between the two families vouching for the prospective bride or groom.

With each new generation, the fundamentals of this matchmaking model have evolved to keep pace with the changing times. Today, matchmaking is an indulgent pastime not just around family kitchen tables, but across college and corporate campuses alike.

Read the complete blog post here.

Conference presentation on SlideShare

To view my presentation slides from last month’s USID Conference in Bangalore, India, head to – http://www.slideshare.net/vmalhotra/usid2008-presentation

USID2008 Conference on Design Innovation & User Experience

In our personal space, we artfully manage a constant dialogue across our networks – whether on Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn, or via tools like Twitter and Friend Feed. We effortlessly forge new communities of interest, and participate in a wider conversation.

In contrast, our workspaces are far better at enforcing hierarchy than they are at fostering a sense of community. Our workspace tools help control the message, rather than start a dialogue that would encourage collaboration and participation.

What can businesses do to adapt and thrive in this new environment? And how can smaller businesses take advantage of these new tools and technologies to compete globally?

I will be discussing the above themes in detail at the USID 2008 Conference on Design Innovation and User Experience, being held in Bangalore, India from 4 – 6  September, 2008 (via a video link).  If you happen to be in Bangalore and would like to attend the USID conference, please register at their website.

And if you happen to have any specific queries based on the themes discussed above, drop me an email and I’ll try and cover it in my presentation.

Third-party auto sites in the slow lane

Visit an OEM car website, and you’d expect to see slick graphics, interactive demos, and one click access to every positive review and award conferred on them. This is done in large part to gratify the ego of the person who has likely already made a purchase decision (notice the photo-shopped desktop wallpapers for download?)

Which is why the burden falls on third-party auto sites to be the fair and balanced arbiter, providing shoppers with the tools to research and validate their decisions. Unfortunately, third-party auto sites underwhelm when it comes to creating an optimal user experience. Instead, they provide yet another billboard for car manufacturers to splash their marketing spiel.

Using user-centered design methodologies that rely on personas and scenarios, third-party auto sites can significantly improve the overall experience for site visitors. Support for user-generated tags as an alternate means of accessing information, and cluster search that contextualise results are a good place to start.

Have you recently used a third-party auto site to locate your next car? Share your experience with us.


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