Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

Think Like a Human

Rodin’s The ThinkerFor decades, empires have been built on a simple and consistent business model: We’ll sell you what you want, as long as you also get a bunch of other stuff that you don’t want.

Newspapers will deliver the news, as long as you don’t mind the ads. Cable TV providers offer your favorite shows wrapped in a package of obscure channels featuring llama-shearing marathons and dozens of tips for organizing your sock drawer. You’ve got to sit through the opening act before the featured band takes the stage. And, I’d be willing to wager, there were a few courses required to get your bachelor’s degree that have proven to be only marginally relevant to your subsequent career.

The missing link
A similar approach is often seen in website design. Organizations routinely put feature stories in a visually prominent place on the home page while more utilitarian functions and links are pushed to the margins. While it’s possible that audience research indicated a strong interest in these types of stories, it’s more likely that the organization has a keen interest in promoting them.

In my experience with usability testing, site visitors consistently show little to no interest in website feature content. It just gets in the way of finding the information or completing the task they came to the site for in the first place. Who’s serving whom?

Product designers can become enamored with new bells and whistles while sacrificing ease of use. Architects can create spaces that don’t adequately consider environmental impact or human behavior patterns. Governments create forms and procedures that are needlessly complex.

What do all of these things have in common? They all overlook – or undervalue – the experience of the end user: human beings.

The golden rule
Imagine if marketing and design excelled at treating others as we’d like to be treated. Imagine if your marketing, in fact, your entire organization, was guided by design thinking. Design thinking has emerged in recent years as a trendy package of processes geared to solving complex problems through creativity and innovation. Combining empathy, analysis, insights, and rapid prototyping, design thinking encourages multidisciplinary teams to keep the end user firmly at the core of any proposed solutions.

This is where theory and practice sometimes diverge.

Considering the end user, or customer, as a means of developing perceptive and effective solutions is not particularly new or mysterious – no matter what you call it. As the design thinking process is embraced by more people, it seems there is a lot more thinking than doing. For example, I’m not convinced that brainstorming generates more creative solutions (research shows the opposite may be true), or that the design process will always benefit from putting lots of people in a room with a pile of Post-It® notes.

Getting to know you
I do believe in developing empathy for an audience through research, and would propose a more accurate name for this type of problem-solving process is human-centered design. It’s not primarily about the thinking. It’s not about profits. It’s not a secret shortcut to innovation. It’s about delivering a product, service, or experience that fills a real human need.

That all sounds great, you’re thinking, but how does that work in the real world? I’m not an anthropologist or a psychologist and I don’t even own a white lab coat. No worries.

Like anything, human-centered design benefits from regular practice. Acquiring the tools, techniques, and experience require nothing more than time, a keen interest in the human race, and an abiding desire to solve problems.

Turning ideas into action
Diverge + ConvergeThere’s no shortage of good ideas. A human-centered design process uses divergent thinking to create many choices, helping  uncover new opportunities and generate more actionable ideas faster. The most critical skill, however, is developing an ability to evaluate those ideas, to converge on a choice and move forward. To do so, weigh your options against the following criteria:

  • Desirability: Throughout the process, listen to and understand what people need and want.
  • Feasibility: What is possible within your organization? Acknowledge the barriers, but optimism rules. Don’t shortchange yourself by aiming too low.
  • Viability: Great ideas are like currency, but money matters. Solutions need to be scaled to available resources.

The best ideas live where these three criteria overlap.

As consumers, we’ve come to expect that we can get exactly what we want when we want it, and there’s little reason to accept anything less. Consequently, marketing strategies that rely on bait-and-switch tactics or bundling desirable with less desirable services will become more difficult to sustain.

Human-centered design offers a better way to deliver services, products, and experiences that satisfy real needs, providing a new thing to think about – how to deal with all those happy customers.

Related content:
Human Centered Design Toolkit

Favorite Links: August 2012

We’re always in search of fresh thinking on issues that affect nonprofit marketing. Here’s some recent favorites:

4 Principles For Creating Change, And 4 Barriers That Make It Harder
Fast Company

Complexity Kills: Keeping Customer Service Simple
Forbes

The Secret Lives of Zipcar Drivers
The Atlantic Cities

The Bleeding Edge

There’s been an explosion at the factory on the edge of town. At the regional hospital, emergency room personnel maintain radio contact with the paramedics en route, bracing for the arrival of a half dozen injured workers. Successful medical treatment is reliant on ER staff correctly identifying and attending to the highest priorities first. This is what’s known as triage.

Every day competing priorities explode on the desks of non-profit marketers, yet it’s the rare organization that has the knowledge and discipline to focus attention on its most effective communications efforts. Instead, most professionals scramble from one thing to the next, unable to confidently make decisive choices or commit the time necessary to do each job well.

How did we get here?
As they say, the first step to getting healthy is acknowledging the problem. Not a single person I’ve ever met disputes the current state of affairs, nor asserts that this is the preferred way of doing business, yet nothing changes. In fact, it seems to be getting worse. So, what’s the next step?

If we can’t get beyond acknowledgement, then maybe we can attempt to understand the forces conspiring against behavior change. I’ve observed frequent variations on the following themes:

  • Everyone else is doing it. It’s one of the oldest excuses in the book – the argument that we’re only mimicking behavior seen elsewhere – but it didn’t impress your mom, and it’s not a good enough reason to do things today.
  • It’s the latest thing. Ooh, shiny! Whether it’s a fascination with new technologies, attention deficit disorder, or boredom with the same old tactics, the allure of the next new thing is undeniable. Getting results, however, can usually be attributed to spot-on strategy, not a trendy tool.
  • We don’t know what works. It’s difficult to isolate the effects of one thing on an integrated marketing effort, but far too many decisions are made without any information – or any plan to measure the results of our efforts.
  • We don’t know what our audience prefers or expects. At first glance, what they want is everything … for free. We act as if everyone is anxiously waiting for our up-to-the-minute news, opinions, and flash mob videos. What would happen if people had to opt in instead of opt out of your content delivery? Don’t forget to ask.
  • Fear. Advertisers and the media are highly skilled at amplifying feelings of inadequacy – your breath stinks, your life is boring, and no one will ever love you. Did you hear 16 universities have great new Google+ brand pages?!? Take a deep breath, treat reports of your imminent demise with skepticism, and chart your own course.

Adopt or adapt
It’s often difficult to accept our limitations, it’s so … limiting. The ability to make a clear-eyed assessment of one’s strengths and weaknesses is an incredible advantage when it comes to focusing time and energy.

A start-up company doesn’t begin by operating on a global scale. A novice hiker doesn’t attempt to tackle Mount Everest. And a single musician, no matter how talented, can’t match a symphony orchestra’s depth of sound. Each, on its own, is capable of great things, but it would be foolish to suggest they are capable of the same things as someone with greater resources and expertise.

Can non-profit organizations, notoriously understaffed and underfunded, afford to be early adopters in marketing communications? Does it make sense to rush to produce the next great smartphone app, dive headfirst into multiple social networks, or add new distribution channels when ongoing commitments are barely getting produced? Something’s gotta give.

There’s no shame in staking out a more deliberate strategy of agile adaptation. Let others be trailblazers in technology – or marketing communications – and aim to be a smarter second (or third) to market. It’s a model that’s worked pretty well for Apple Computer, among others.

Making better choices
Intensive training and hours of practice helps emergency room doctors and nurses make dozens of rapid-fire decisions on the spot. More significantly, these medical professionals have a crystal clear filter through which to weigh their options – which patient outcomes will most benefit from immediate attention.

For marketing communications, that filter is a comprehensive content strategy. Content includes all the text, graphics, video, and audio you produce. Content strategy, as defined by Brain Traffic’s Kristina Halvorson, is “the practice of planning for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.” Without a clear strategy, every decision is made piecemeal, without consideration for how it supports business objectives and meets your customers’ goals.

In order to begin planning, and then executing, your content strategy, you need:

  • Analysis of existing content. Who creates it, where does it go, who maintains it, and what goals is it intended to address? Understanding your current situation is the key to designing a better way.
  • A plan to measure results. If you’re going to fail, you need to fail quickly and learn from the experience. Making the same mistakes over and over again is an expensive way to do business.
  • Audience insights. Numbers won’t tell you everything. There’s no substitute for listening to the people your organization is attempting to serve – through web usability testing, surveys, focus groups, phone interviews or casual conversations.

You also need good writers and designers, disciplined thinkers, and leaders who help colleagues understand and stay true to the organization’s marketing communication goals. But you already have that, right?

A glimmer of hope
The current non-profit communications model leaves many professionals feeling like a hamster on a wheel. By cultivating a more contemplative, less reactive way of doing business, handling the onslaught of requests for your time and attention can become less arbitrary. Just remember to polish your diplomatic skills before telling a co-worker their project is not a high priority!

There’s a lot to be said for knowing your audience, knowing their expectations, and knowing what you’re capable of producing well. Next month, I’ll look at a few examples of organizations that actually improved their effectiveness by doing less – or at least doing things differently – thanks to the guidance of a clear content strategy.

Until then, please share your examples here.

Related content:
The Terrifying Truth of New Technology
Make Sure You Measure Up
Confessions of a Twitter-Phobe

A humorous look at project prioritization:

Dilbert Comic - pointy-haired boss outlining next year's "areas of focus"

Mining Your Blind Spots

I was recently asked for guidance from a communications professional whose new boss wanted a report on their advertising’s return on investment (ROI). Panic ensued.

I can understand the panic, as it sounds a little like a Dilbert comic strip after the pointy-haired boss has returned from a conference with a new buzzword. This is not meant to deny the importance of spending ad dollars wisely, or tracking the effectiveness of your marketing efforts, but trying to construct a meaningful ROI report retroactively is folly.

What can be measured?
Everything. Anything. Just because it’s difficult to find meaningful numbers to attach to an enterprise doesn’t mean people won’t keep trying. Data allows us to rationalize our actions. And it’s widely accepted that reason is more reliable than emotion or feelings. But is it?

Conventional wisdom
Across the corporate and non-profit landscape, quality improvement efforts are stuck in the factory mentality of the Industrial Age. If only things are well-measured, the thinking goes, we’ll produce better widgets, graduates or advertising.

Our brains are wired to overestimate the likelihood that our future will look a lot like our past. This influences everything we do, placing great importance on data – essentially, history quantified. Unfortunately, our high tech world’s rapid pace of change virtually guarantees that the future we imagine is an illusion.

Learning to anticipate
Wayne Gretzky, the hockey legend, consistently outfoxed bigger and faster competition by passing to spots where a teammate was going to be. How did he always seem to magically be one step ahead of everyone else?

Undoubtedly, through hours of practice on his backyard ice rink, he acquired lots of data. But many players practice a lot. It may be precisely because of Gretzky’s disadvantages that he discovered an unexpected competitive advantage. He could sense, or feel, the play developing, and learned to see risks worth taking.

Risk aversion is human nature, but it blinds us to opportunities as well as threats. In marketing your organization, common assumptions about what the future holds (influenced by those ROI reports) create an artificially narrow set of choices.

To expand your vision, you need to recognize and resist the herd mentality. In your market, or with your audience, what is least likely to happen? Learning to see into your blind spots – exploring unexpected territory – allows you to anticipate the opportunities that others miss.

Related Content:

How to Become a Visionary

The Big Assumption Underlying Internet Media Ventures

Field Sense May Be Teachable

Expand Your Way of Seeing

In the modern business environment, nothing is trusted more than cold, hard facts. Simply using one’s own eyes and ears to observe how people interact with your product or service, on the other hand, is an underappreciated skill.

Ethnography is observing people’s behavior in their own environments, so you can get a holistic understanding of their world. – LiAnne Yu, cultural anthropologist

While it’s not necessary to be a trained social scientist to benefit from observing others, like any skill, regular practice increases proficiency. When communicators put themselves in others’ shoes, they begin to see beyond their own preconceptions, leading to more compelling stories and experiences.

What’s bugging you?

If you’ve ever been to an airport, chances are you’ve got an opinion or two about how the whole experience could be better – from parking to check-in to boarding your flight. When it comes to personal preferences, you’re probably not as unique as you think.

Keeping an ongoing, personal “bug list” is a good place to start training yourself to note patterns of behavior in real-world settings. Those behaviors will provide clues to where opportunities for improvement exist.

Take the time to gather new insights. If you’re far removed in age and experience from your target audience, curiosity is the key to obtaining new points of view. When it comes to honing your powers of observation, look for a few people that fit your target audience. It’s better to know a few people deeply than many people superficially.

Imagining action

When conducting on-site research is impractical – maybe you’re planning for a winter event in late summer – it may be useful to think in terms of verbs rather than nouns.

Take a college, for instance. Don’t think of class registration, think of a specific student registering. This involves action – all of the steps and processes around this activity. Is there a building that registering students need to visit? Picture that environment. Are there forms to fill out? How could they be simpler? Imagine the experience of a real person moving through the necessary steps to register for classes.

If you know your organization well, you can “see” that experience. Where are the opportunities to improve communications? If that experience is improved, does it present marketing opportunities?

Define the problem.

The tighter the focus of your observation, the more valuable the insights will be. For example, broadly trying to encourage more people to make donations isn’t nearly as helpful as asking: What are the competing priorities for young, first-time donors?

Removing barriers to communication will make interacting with your organization more intuitive. Once you become more attuned to audience behavior, keen observational insights will make your communications and marketing more powerful, clear, and well understood.

Related content:

Ethnography Primer

Flying Blind

Dan's dog Buster.

About a year ago my dog almost died. Buster and I have been together for nearly 16 years. He had been as frisky as ever on a long walk the day before his near-death experience and now, many months later, he’s doing fine.

The problem I faced that day at the veterinary hospital is similar, though perhaps less emotionally charged, to ones faced by non-profit organizations on a regular basis: not enough information to adequately guide a wise decision.

How could Buster seem so healthy one day and so ill the next? What’s wrong with him? Can he be saved? And what will it cost? In a very condensed time frame, with the help of the vet, I needed to consider what little information I had and make a decision.

Unlike large corporations that spend millions on market research every year, non-profit organizations have relatively shallow pockets. However, they are well-served by acquiring as much information as possible before making decisions that affect the success of the organization: Would our stakeholders prefer to get information from us online or in print? How can we increase donations from younger demographics? Is our website as effective as it needs to be?

Sometimes decisions are made with virtually no information aside from hunches or other people’s personal anecdotes. Other times there’s paralysis caused by too much information. Either way, organizations benefit when they take the time to acquire and analyze relevant information.

Targeted market research doesn’t have to cost a fortune or take months to see results. It helps to ask the right questions — or any questions at all. Most non-profits have stakeholders ready to offer their time and insights with little or no incentive. Through facilitated focus groups or online surveys, organizations can quickly collect useful qualitative and quantitative data.

We’ve conducted website usability testing with only 5–6 subjects that resulted in significant improvements in a matter of weeks. Cost? A few thousand dollars.

Sometimes the information is right under your nose, but making sense of it is the problem. If your organization is information rich and time poor, it could be worthwhile to ask an expert to analyze the data with fresh eyes.

As a parent, as well as a dog owner, I often feel as if I’m flying blind. Most often, my course of action is trial-and-error, with only marginal confidence that what I’m doing might work. Non-profit organizations have far less margin for error. By building an organizational culture that encourages informed decision-making, your marketing efforts will be more successful the first time.