Thoughts on behavioural economics, emotional design and customer engagement

This week, I've been discussing with friends and colleagues what 'customer engagement' could or should mean. There's a cadence to the change in vernacular of design. 'Customer engagement', we think, is ripe for a meaningful redefinition. My colleague puts it like this

In many ways Customer Engagement has become old hat.  Omnichannel has become trite ... and many of the other ideas, like real time offers, lack practical insights into how they would become reality.  HCI is already familiar (if not adopted) by almost everyone with a working brain.

Now my thoughts on how emotional design and behavioural economics may enrich the discourse on 'customer engagement'

Emotional design

There's been a natural progression from Don Norman's seminal book of the same name. There's some basic psychology that folks like Aaron Walter have explored, best summed up in this diagram. Getting 'pleasurable' right, I believe, is a big part of differentiation in a saturated and competitive market. It's about customer engagement, but not in the ways that you've listed above, which I agree have become overused.


A riff on Aaron Walter's remap of Maslow's hierarchy of needs

That works for the west, but what does customer engagement look like in the Global South? Nag and I recently posited that in the GS, it's the base of the pyramid that is usually most important - see Thinking differently (frugal innovation in the Global South).

Behavioural economics

I think we miss a few tricks when we look just at individual interactions and the usual qualitative research methods that ostensibly reveal to us the how and why of human behaviour. I mean, it does, but only for the 'consciously aware' decisions or behaviours. Economists have known for a while that so much of human behaviour is unconsciously irrational. Dan Ariely, Daniel Kahneman etc. How might we change the way we approach idea validation and general product development to reveal products and services that people do actually use, regardless of the individual product's design* merit (*where 'design' refers to the physical quality of the product - slickness, feel, aesthetic - not necessarily how well it solves a given problem).

Again, this ties in with the 'frugal innovation' discourse and the redefinition of what 'design' means - moving more toward 'a solution to a problem within set constraints'. We've come a long way - via movements like service design, but I think the market is generally still pretty reductive when talking about design - it's often still regarded as a veneer, an aesthetic layer, and the remit of 'creative' types. We'd do well to get our heads out of our arses and look at some of the models and systems that economists uses to make decisions that affect entire nations. Surely, there is a lot to learn from how they do things, and surely, 'big data' plays a part here too!

Interview with AFR Boss Magazine - Designing for Mobile

The Australian Financial Review (AFR) published an interview on Designing for Mobile in their monthly Boss Magazine. Rachel Botsman interviewed me alongside mobile thought leaders Luke Wroblewskiauthor of Mobile First, and Joe Gebbia, co-founder of AirBnb. She asked about challenging assumptions surrounding the use of mobile devices today, and what makes great mobile experiences.

We often make big assumptions about how people use mobile devices. We assume they’re “on the go” with partial attention and “snacking” on bite-size chunks of the most relevant information... but today, The only thing we know about user’s intentions and context is that we don’t know.

I'm flattered to have my thoughts published in The Financial Review.

Read the printed article as a PDF, or online at

Thinking differently (frugal innovation in the Global South)

It was terrific to have the opportunity last October to talk at Mobile Developer Summit in Bangalore, India. One of the coolest things was freedom of topic. A lot of the time, when giving some kind of public talk, the topic is kinda set already. Perhaps the organisers have a theme, or there's something specific to advocate for business reasons. For these kinds of reasons, I've talked about a lot of things that I'm somewhat dispassionate about.

This time there was a lot of freedom, in most part because I was invited to speak. Big in India?!

The day before that happened, my colleague Nag Kandukuru sat with a group of Experience Designers from ThoughtWorks - at a global meet-up in Pune - to talk about myriad important differences in software development and digital products for the Global South. Nag spoke passionately about how developing countries sometimes aimlessly follow the trends of the West, with disregard to the suitability of those solutions for the social and economic context of the Global South. Similarly, there is so much innovation - frugal innovation - that happens in the Global South that the rest of the world could really learn a thing or two from.

This inspired me tremendously. What Nag talked about is fundamentally aligned with what I believe design to be. That is, a solution to a problem within set constraints. The problems are human, the solution is design and social and economic context are a large part of what constraints are about.

Also, I really didn't want to be the white guy telling an auditorium full of Indians how they should do stuff better, which would no doubt be tainted by my narrow minded, mollycoddled, western world views. So, I asked Nag if he'd give the talk with me, so that that we could present more balanced and more meaningful.

This is the result!

Marketing vs. Meaning

A colleague asked whether I agreed with Andrew Chen's article about it being hard to gain traction for mobile products via (ageing) marketing strategies. He asked:

Do you agree with his observations? What does it mean then for new players?

Here's my response:

I agree that it's harder, but it also misses the point.

The argument is essentially that marketing of apps has gotten harder and more competitive as people have become much bigger consumers of mobile.

That is how competitive markets work.

Look to recent history for parallels in other media - Think about the first ten years of: radio, television, the internet. I bet it was much, much easier in the early days to flog a product to their captive audiences. As those platforms matured, competitiveness increased and only the best products (or those with the deepest pockets...) rise to the top.

What caught my attention most, was this:

"The editorial teams inside the Apple and Google stores can certainly help some apps, and they do. Yet they are skewed more towards the needs of the consumer, and to the goals of the platform."

And so they should be.

There is a place for the marketing of anything, but the best marketing is nothing unless the product meets a real need. According to his analysis, any old punter or weekend warrior, is now going to have a harder time getting traction in mobile.

Sure. Fine.

My counterpoint is that good products and services will always find traction, because they meet a real need, and they do it in a meaningful way. Everything else is just noise.

What does it mean for new players?

Focus on meaningful products and services that solve real problems, and you should be get traction. If that means finding a VC to fund the now more expensive marketing exercises, then so be it.

Talking about product innovation at Agile Australia 2013

Speaking with Kate Linton at Agile Australia 2013 was a load of fun. We talked about product innovation in large enterprises. We walked through characteristics that are helpful for innovation, as well a bunch of methods and techniques used on recent ThoughtWorks projects around the globe. Check it out for yourself.