How close are we to our own currency?

There’s been a lot of talk recently about new currencies around the world developed and owned by brands to reward loyalty from customers. Loyalty cards and rewards points are a dime a dozen these days on the high street and of course help to hone many a buying decision.

A recent TED talk by Paul Kemp-Robertson discussed the rise of Amazon’s new currency and Nike Sweat – pledge your sweat for points – as a consumer’s trust is more in businesses than in traditional institutions such as banks and governments.

Ultimately, these currencies are owned and run by the big brands themselves. Even though the consumer might believe that it gives them more power in the market place, does it?

Behind all of these schemes are the machinations that make it all possible. Analytics chew through mountains of statistics and data to pinpoint what we as consumers do with our money, what we buy, create special offers on our most purchased items and make recommendations of our related products – along with creating profiles on us.

This was highlighted further recently with an article in Fast Company, detailing the level of analysis gathering occurring in high street stores. Add what’s been uncovered through Snowden-gate and we have ample concern about our privacy – the how, what, where, when and most importantly, why.

What’s needed in this relationship, is for the key players to change position. Consumers should be their own gatekeepers on who can access their information and to what degree. Not the brands. Subscribing to these reward schemes promotes the risk of multiple data sets stored in faraway databases with price tags on them. Perhaps what is needed is a currency that each and every one of us own. Not controlled by a faceless organisation in an indeterminable location doing god only knows what with. If there is a place for governments in this consumer-controlled world, it is to set the infrastructure to firmly place consumers in the driving seat.

A system that gives power to the consumer to enter into permission-based transactions. Knowing that their behaviour will be tracked and analysed, a consumer chooses who to give their consent to – those stores or brands which they trust to do business with regularly. The consumer chooses the amount of information given and could involve progressive disclosure over a period of time – as the trust with the vendor grows based on an ongoing and amiable relationship. This getting of information is gained through good customer relations and old fashioned service, rather than just because they have the means to do it. In return, the consumer gets rewards, free product, gifts, etc.

Our data is what these brands want. With this information, they can analyse our behaviours and our habits to improve their marketing efforts and their product offering. But so far this has been a lopsided transaction. We willingly tick terms and conditions check boxes on websites that waives the organisation concerned of any wrongdoing if a leak of privacy occurs. Still sounds way out of the control of those whose data is mined – us, you and me.

Anya Kamenetz speaks of apps enabling payment for making monetising our data online. One site in particular – – will soon be offering a feature that allows customers to offer up their data in return for free product, but with what controls?

Either way, the times may be achanging for establishments that mine, store and manipulate our data for their own purposes. Our privacy should be our own global currency.

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High street longevity

When I saw the name for a new coffee chain opening on the Ealing Broadway High street, I got to thinking. Harris + Hoole is a smart and cosy family run coffee establishment and the name that got me thinking.

I wondered if the same joining of two different entities could have helped curb the number of high street brands going into administration during the recession. Admittedly, this idea could not have prevented the closing of stores due to decreasing footfall and spending. But why wait for customers to come to you – take your wares to the customer.

For instance, if HMV had coupled with Starbucks or Costa to enable customers to download or buy music, videos or books online while they enjoy their coffee, could that have helped save a few jobs?

Or imagine the summer of festivals that permeates this country. You pack up for a few days of music and sun, the most important thing you want to do is capture the fun times right? But typically, there’s not a lot of power outlets for charging cameras and smartphones and therefore you come back with a few less memories that what you’d hoped. What if Jessops had taken their digital technology to these events so that festival goers could charge their phones while also getting the chance to rent high-end camera equipment to photograph themselves and friends and upload the fabulously-edited images (with the assistance of Jessops staff) to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc, etc.

Pretty soon, you start to see a lot of similar cross overs with other brands.

There’s a lot of ‘cross’-ness occurring elsewhere, that I thought it strange that brands had not collaborated before – before or after hard hitting recessions. We have cross-channel (marketing across different media), cross-genre (fiction that draws themes from different genres), cross-functional teams (different expertise working on the one project), and there’s more.

Sure, there is cross-promotion but that speaks of a short-term marketing strategy. The idea of longevity suggested here is of more from a business structure and design perspective.

Signposting our ruin

Last night in a busy Tesco I saw 3 self-service machines vacant while a queue circled around the fruit and veg section? Why? The customers were waiting an instruction. An instruction which didn’t come as the attendant on duty was helping a very flustered customer with a technical problem on another machine.

As I’ve watched the increase of self-service machines take over the number of peopled cash registers, so too the reliance of customers on the attendants. They were originally stationed to help with technical problems. But the waiting queue now wait for the attendant’s command to go and which self service machine to go to.

On another occasion while standing second in line, I alerted the person in front that a machine had become free. The response was, ‘the attendant will tell me if its okay.’

It wouldn’t seem that difficult a concept. One customer vacates the machine, another engages it. Like waiting for a pump at a petrol station. Do we wait for an attendant to tell us where to go? No, no one stands at the pumps to hold our hand and lead us through. We line up sensibly, the car in front leaves and we move up.

This got me around to think about signposting – triggers we all use in interface design for messaging or instruction to the user. But do we ourselves do too much hand holding and impede the user from thinking for themselves?

Recently I have been working on a scientific content enrichment project. The target user is chemists who are very familiar with the content and its subleties. Yet I work with stakeholders who are not, and who question screen designs that don’t give enough instruction or context.

What’s the balance? Clearly AB testing is the solution here and has proven that the less amount of noise the better, the content speaks for itself. As a previous head of UX used to drill into me, the efficacy of design should eliminate any need for explanation.

But is there too much noise out there already and does the Tesco observation show we are a society that expect to be told what to do?

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Sweet packaged cupcakes

I love startups … creative, food, culinary. And this weekend I saw a cupcake startup hitting their stride with free samplings at a large gourmet supermarket in London. Woo hoo !

I arrived on time for the tasting – didn’t want to miss out – but I couldn’t find their stand. Did I get the date wrong? No, the store’s bakery staff were expecting them also. So I wander the bakery counter and see that they’re already stocked in the superstore. As I want to investigate the different flavours, I am unable to easily see what’s inside the boxes.

The problem? The packaging design.

The individual cupcake was beautifully housed in a clear plastic box with a dovetailed lid. The entire front of the box however was covered in their promotional label. You get a much better view of the cakes on their website.

The space on the shelf was tight, so picking up the plastic boxes was difficult without disturbing the neighbouring boxes and pulling the entire shelf load to the floor. I was becoming a little annoyed. All I could do was stand on tiptoe to look through the top of the box to see the morsel inside.

I eventually bought one. Not the one I wanted because I couldn’t see the description of the cake easily – this was written on the back of the box. Hmm…

I pondered the situation as I stared at the empty box at home after finishing the baked good. How could the packaging done a better job of presentation?

Firstly, a reimagined packaging design so that the label did not cover the merchandise from view. Allow people to freely see what’s inside – why do you need an illustration on the label when you have such a pretty cupcake inside to do your advertising for you?

And secondly, the strapline that describes your cake – for eg. a vanilla buttermilk cupcake with a juicy passionfruit centre – should also appear on the front, not the back. Let people know what they’re buying. You don’t want the customer to have to pick up box after box just to find basic information. Don’t let them get the cake home to realise that the simple chocolate cupcake they bought is really a chilli chocolate cupcake laced with brandy … not everyone likes liquer in their cakes.

Two simple steps to package your wares could save people time in perusing and entice them into filling their baskets with more of your goods. I know I would have 🙂

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Taking the sting out of the worker bees

Recently I was asked to study users that process subscription orders and handle customer service requests for a publisher. They want their antiquated and clunky administrative tool updated and honed for their purposes – which they’d been promised for years would be fixed.

Considering that tensions may be high when the subject is broached, I’m proposing a lighter approach for the workshop – using a board game. This idea came from a children’s television show I saw in Australia, which also had the same format in the UK.

Do you think it may work?

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UX finds a gap …

Sometimes the developers I work with believe that UX extends so far as me producing a mockup or specifying how a user will perform a function. However it is so much more than that, as peers will agree.

In a meeting recently I demonstrated the preferred method for a user to find specialist content using auto-complete on the advanced search form. While on the whole, the stakeholders were happy with the process, the technical architect identified a global problem with the existing content model on which the product was built. Essentially, it meant that by using the auto-complete feature, the user could only retrieve a proportion of the content. How would the other proportion be surfaced to the user? The discussion went on for some 20 mins at which point the developer got cross. ‘This meeting has gone on a tangent, hasn’t it?’ he asked me. I reiterated that we had a content problem. ‘I don’t care about the content, as long as there’s a list, that’s all I need.’

What my colleague had failed to realise was that the ideal user experience was not possible due to a stitched together set of legacy systems containing related content. That the initial architecture of the site had fundamental problems which would need solving first in order to achieve optimal usage.

The bigger thing which my colleague had failed to identify is that the role of UX is meant to show up gaps and holes in systems and processes such as this. While he took the tangent as a waste of time, I took it as a feather in the cap for UX ! Surely that’s what it’s all about it, isn’t it?

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At the moment I seem to be witnessing a glut of grammatical, punctuation and spelling errors in online media. Unfinished sentences go begging in some of the biggest name newspaper and magazine sites, that is just plain slovenly.

Just because the medium is instantaneous doesn’t mean that it requires any less pride in creation or editing.

Take this example – the advert at the top. ‘Introducing’ by definition means something that is not yet seen or is being presented for the first time. Is ‘new’ really necessary then?

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