Episode #7 Jeff Gothelf & Josh Seiden’s “Sense & Respond”
Traditional marketing and communications often take the form of a one-way conversation. Things are put out into the market and it generally ends there. With the emergence of social media, a two-way conversation has also emerged. It leads to the opportunity for companies to sense what is happening in the market and respond to it.
Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden previously co-authored the book Lean UX and in their latest, Sense & Respond, they investigate how companies can foster that two-way conversation. In particular, convincing companies that, no matter what industry they're in, they're software companies.
In this podcast, Jeff and Josh share some of the highlights from the book and their research. Our hosts, Adam Churchill and Jared Spool dig into those highlights.
Adam Churchill: Welcome everyone, to another edition of The UIE Book Corner. I'm Adam Churchill, and I'm here with Jared Spool.
Jared Spool: Hey Adam.
Adam: So Jared, I want to tell you a little bit about Sense and Respond. It's a book written by Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden. It's about how successful organizations listen to customers, and create new products continuously. One of the things that had me excited about it, is the entire book talks a lot about the themes that we're talking about at UIE all the time.
But what's super interesting is that it's a book written by designers, for business people, and in fact, Jeff Gothelf mentioned that, when I asked him about some of the surprises, the things that he learned writing the book, he talked about Harvard Business Review Press and how appreciative he was that they took a chance on a couple of designers writing this business book. To me, what's important about that, business people are gonna read it.
Jared: That's really exciting. I'm excited to get the book and crack it open, because businesses have gotten over this hump of thinking that design is just this optional things that makes things pretty, and they're now seeing that it could be important to changing the way the organization approaches design.
But in a lot of cases, there is no good guide to that. There's no resource that says, well this is how you get started. I'm hoping that the book does a good job of telling us where we can start.
Adam: I think where you start is this conversation that organizations need to understand. Here's what Josh had to say about that conversation.
Josh Seiden: We really fell in love with this phrase, two-way conversation with the market. We heard it first, when we were, again, doing research for the book, from someone who worked in the Obama for America campaign. What he told us was that all of their digital operations were built around the idea that they could have a two-way conversation with the market.
And what that meant to them, he said, "Look, traditional advertisement, or traditional advertising, traditional marketing, is a one-way conversation. You push message out, and you hope they land, and you try and measure their impact, but all of that measurement is kind of indirect."
Instead, what they were trying to do at this campaign was, they would push a message out with a response mechanism, a button to click. Sign up here. Share this tweet. Tag your tweets with this hashtag. A way to engage their audience in a back and forth that would help them learn more about what was motivating to their audience. And he said that was really the key difference, that everything was built around what we called in the title of the book, sensing and responding, sense and respond.
So the idea here is that if you can build into your product development life cycle, this ongoing conversation with your customer, you can talk to them, literally, you can watch what they're doing with the product, you can understand how they use it. You have this opportunity to create better products and services that are better suited to what your customers need, and be more successful in the process.
Adam: Jared, I asked Josh what it looks like when that two-way conversation is going well, when an organization sort of has it right. And he had this great story.
Josh: One of the stories that we like to tell is this story we heard from last year at Tesla, where a frustrated customer pulled his Tesla into one of the supercharger stations, this one in San Mateo, California, and he discovered that all the superchargers were occupied, not with people charging their cars, but with people who had plugged them in, and then left to go shopping. And these cars were done charging, but the owners were nowhere to be seen. And so this guy tweeted at Tesla, and at Elon Musk, that he was frustrated. And Elon Musk tweeted right back, and he said, "You're right, this is becoming a problem. We'll fix it."
And six days later, Tesla shipped an update to their software that detects when a car is parked at the supercharger station, and is done charging, and then sends an alert to the owner, saying, "Hey, your car's done charging. Come move it, or we're gonna start charging you a parking fee." To me, this is a great little example of that two-way conversation. You're listening to the market, you've got the data.
Elon Musk was triggered by this tweet, but he wasn't just responding to a single tweet. He had the data for how the superchargers were being used. And so he could say, "Oh look, this tweet, it's backed up by data. This is becoming a problem. You're right." And then, the company had the capability, through the mature dev ops practices and continuous deployment capabilities, they had the capability to respond quickly with a new feature.
Now it's not clear whether that feature's going to work or not. Is it really gonna motivate these Tesla owners to move their cars, if they're charged a parking fee? We don't really know. But Tesla has the ability to try this out six days later. And then, if it doesn't work, they can try something else. And this kind of capability, this listening and responding capability, this is how a modern company operates.
Jared: What I love about that story ... I love it for a couple reasons. One is, it talks to this idea that the experience doesn't just end when they sell the car. A conventional car company really is all about making a car people will buy, and then they're sort of out of the picture, because the dealer takes over from there, and they're the ones who fix it, they're the ones who actually sell it. The car company doesn't have that idea of a conversation, ongoing, with their customer. But Tesla does. And that's really interesting.
But the other thing that's really interesting about this, is that they reacted to a customer situation that is really outside the boundaries of that conventional experience. Persons owning the car, they're not giving Tesla any more money, really. They're just trying to get the car gassed up, or in the case of an electric car, [electroned 00:06:37] up. So they're trying to get that to happen, and now they can't do it. And yet, Tesla can respond to that.
Adam: So Jared, how do organizations know that they're doing the right thing, like Tesla did in this two-way conversation, and not just reacting to a single customer's experience?
Jared: Well I think the advantage that Tesla had in that story, was that they have this large amount of data that they could go back and check. And this is something that I think designers need more skills at, which is to look for something that happens in the real world, like someone saying, "Hey, this experience is frustrating," and then go into the data and say, "Hey, do we see this experience playing out this way, other places?" But to do that, I'm guessing you have to have this large amount of data.
Adam: That came up during our conversation, and I actually asked Jeff, how much data do you actually need to move these things forward, to make sure that you've learned the right things.
Jeff Gothelf: The short answer is this, you always have enough to start learning. In other words, you don't have to wait for any magical critical mass, but you always have the ability to start learning, and there's always things to go out there and to learn.
And you know, are you learning the right things right now? Maybe, maybe not, but the only way to find out is to get out there, and to start doing some kind of sensing activity, some kind of activity to get out there and get a sense of whether or not your assumptions are correct, your efforts are headed in the right direction, and your customers are being serviced in a way that makes them more successful.
This is not to say that you should then go out and go do six months worth of research, or a year's worth of ethnographic studies. You simply get together as a team, and through relatively quick conversations and exercises, you can articulate what your biggest risks are right now. And based on those biggest risks, you can start to build a learning activity right away. Now you many find out, through that learning activity, that that's not your biggest risk, that something else was. That's a very good thing to learn, and it starts to refocus what the team is actually working on.
And so the recommendation here is don't wait until you have a critical mass, get together as a team very quickly, and determine what you feel are the riskiest elements of the work that you're currently doing, and then get out there and start running experiments and talking to customers and doing the things that you need to do to start to validate whether or not that is indeed the thing you should be focusing on.
Adam: Jared, it sounds to me like designers are in a unique position to play a key role here.
Jared: Yeah, that plays right into the designer toolbox. I mean this builds on top of the lean UX stuff that Jeff and Josh talked about in their last book. And all those toolkit elements of going out and answering a question, validating a hypothesis, ensuring that an idea is correct, doing that quickly, and moving through a series of iterations to get there, that is really an essential part of what projects need, and designers are right in the sweet spot, for having the skills and the experience to do that.
So I love that they've got this book now, that's talking to business people, telling them that the way they're gonna solve their business problems is by taking better advantage of the designers that they have on staff. That puts the whole team in to this idea that they just need to always be learning stuff. Is that basically what the book is, or is there more to it?
Adam: Well there's more to it. Everything you said is perfect, but it's not quite enough. There's another piece that sort of helps provide the foundation. Here's what both Jeff and Josh had to say about that.
Jeff: If you go out there, and you start to run sense and respond types of activities, learning, experimentation, research, and reacting to that, you might be basing that work on the scientific method, but you're not actually doing science. The results that you get back are going to fall along a spectrum of, you know, this is accurate and this is inaccurate, this is a valid assumption or an invalid assumption.
And for you to determine where to go next, how to proceed, is it worth proceeding, should we really double down on this or do something else, you need a vision. You need some kind of, like you said, a stake in the sand that says, "Well we're headed in this direction. And the feedback says that this a good idea, but it's a good idea for that other direction. So we're not going to work on this anymore."
Having a vision serves as a filter for all the information that you're sensing. You're going to sense a ton of information. And the only way to determine how best to respond, is to filter that information through some kind of a vision, through the lens of a direction that your team, or that your company, is headed in.
And so we'll hear a lot of folks talk about, well people just kind of iterate their way to success. I don't believe that that's true. I think people need to have a strong belief about the purpose of their organization, the problems that they're setting out to solve, and the customers that they're setting out to solve those problems for, and then through that continuous learning, that sense and respond process, they can find the best combination of code, copy, design, hardware, service, physical space, whatever it is, that provides that relief or that problem resolution for those customers. But you're never gonna get there without a clear sense of why it is that you set out in the first place.
Josh: So I think sometimes people hear about agile and lean methods, or they first experience agile and lean methods, and what they meet are the small pieces. They meet user stories and stand-up meetings, and sprints, and they meet minimum viable products. That's our first exposure to these methods. And it all feels very little.
So I think people think about agile and lean as methods that work on a small scale. And I think Jeff is exactly right that those methods are useful, they're critical in fact, but they're not sufficient. And that without that vision, you're taking small steps to nowhere. And so it's about figuring out how to balance that mix of small, continuous progress, and clear alignment to that vision.
Jared: That's really cool, because creating a vision is definitely key to succeeding. We've seen that for years now as being one of the keys to success, and that designers have a substantial role in creating a vision. They are the ones that can go off and do the research, see where the design is not creating the behaviors that they would like to get out of their users and their customers, and figure out, "Okay, how could we make the world better by delivering our product? How could we create something that really is substantively better than what we have before?"
I think that designers are in a key place to be part of that vision creation process, and if that vision is then used to drive this sense and response process, they're playing a key role in this shift to this new way of operating.
What I'm hearing from this, and what has me really excited about the book, is that this sounds, to me, like this is a really good way to get companies thinking about how they have to fundamentally change. Tesla is a competitive force that is changing the automobile business. We're seeing this in every industry, healthcare and accounting and insurance, where all these new players ... take something like Gusto, which is eating away, very quickly, at the business of market leaders like ADP, which have been processing payroll for years. Gusto comes in and gives small businesses this incredibly great experience for managing their payrolls.
All these companies that have never really thought about themselves in a design experience world, now are sort of being forced to do that. And I'm wondering if they talked at all about that sort of fundamental change. Adam Churchill: What Jeff had to say about how important the vision is, is that going forward, regardless of what type of business you're in, software's gonna play a key role.
Jeff: The two most popular conversations that we have, it seems, is convincing folks, particularly in traditional industries, that they are, first and foremost, in the software business. That is the crux of the first half of the book, is saying that no matter what business that you're in, the only way that you scale and compete on a national and a global level, in the 21st century, is by using technology. That's the way that success happens today, and so you've gotta see yourself as a software-based business first.
And that really, fundamentally rocks a lot of people's worlds. They'll say, "Well we're an insurance company. We're not a software company." Or, "We're a bank, or we make toothbrushes," or whatever it is. And the reality is, that the only way that you're a successful bank, is through implementing technology, both the back end of how the systems run, but the kind of interactions that your employees have with the systems, and the kind of interactions that your customers have with the system. So convincing folks that they're in the software business is the first and most frequent conversation that we seem to have when we talk about this book.
I think the second one, after we talk about collaboration and team size and continuous learning and all of these other concepts, the next most popular conversation becomes, "Ok, I buy it, I'm in the software business, and I've got to run these continuous learning efforts, these sense and respond efforts. How do I plan this stuff? How do I build a roadmap? If software is continuous, and it never ends, how do I make any promises to my customers, to my boss, to my executive team, about what we're working on, and when it will be done, and what kind of return on investment we'll see for that work?"
And that's a very difficult conversation for management teams that are used to getting concrete numbers delivered to them on a daily or weekly, certainly on a quarterly basis. Now that mentality is anchored in that manufacturing model that we keep talking about. And when you were making physical goods, it was easy to predict how many toothbrushes you could make in a particular day, or in an hour, or in a week, and you could talk about reducing the cost of the production of those, and increasing the margins.
But when you're building software, you're not trying to maximize the amount of software that you're developing. What you're trying to do is optimize, continuously, the software system that you're building. Sometimes that's adding a feature. Sometimes that's taking one away. Sometimes that's redesigning one. And because of that ambiguity, because of that complexity and that uncertainty, it becomes much more difficult to plan, and to predict, the outcome, the results of this work.
So that's why we work in these small batches, is to make sure that we're always working on the right things, that we're optimizing the system in the right direction, and that we're headed towards answering those questions that a manager who has seen the light about sense and respond, and organizational agility, has posed to the team.
Jared: That's a really big shift in thinking. This idea that you're optimizing software systems, and thinking in those terms. But I think what's neat about that, and why this is an important book for designers, is that this is what we've always been shooting for, this idea that we can constantly tweak the experience, that we can constantly make it better, and that we can be part of this bigger conversation, without having to be in that manufacturing model that Jeff talked about of once it's shipped, it's out there, you can't change it, we'll just make it better in the next version, that we're gonna ship with the new model year, we're gonna be in this completely different world, and that's really exciting.
I think that we've been working in this direction now, for a really long time, and this is the book that is gonna push folks into that new era, and really have a chance to do that. That's what it feels like to me. I'm excited to read about it.
Adam: I enjoyed the book thoroughly. Just themes that we've been talking about a lot, Josh and Jeff sort of pulled them together and made sense, and talked about it not just from a design perspective, but the entire organization.
Jared: That's great.
Adam: So the book is Sense and Respond, it was written by Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden. It's published through Harvard Business Review Press. It's available, the easiest way to get it, they've got a great website called senseandrespond.co. That's senseandrespond.co.
And one of the things that they wanted to make our audience aware of, is if you go to that site, not only can you get the book, but there's a link called links. While they were collaborating on the book, they had an Evernote, it was basically a dumping ground for thousands of resources, and everything's there and open and available for you.
So that's it. Thanks for joining us for another episode of The UIE Book Corner. Goodbye for now.
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