Social Media Robots, Personas, and Narrative Gaps in Qualitative Research

April 1, 2011

Back in 2006 Hugh Macleod offered the following point on Gapingvoid: “If people like buying your product, it’s because its story helps fill in the narrative gaps in their own lives.” At the time I thought it conveyed nicely the point made by Gerald Zaltman in How Customers Think that “companies should define customer segments on the basis of similarities in their reasoning or thinking processes” (p. 152) rather than constructs related to demographics. Hugh’s point made a lot of sense when I first read it and the point continues to gain in significance for me.

Hugh’s initial post sparked a range of interesting comments that I encourage anyone puzzled by the quote to read. The one point I’ll make about the topic is that nowhere in the post or the comments does anyone say what they mean by narrative gaps. I’ll attempt to clarify the concept below because it doesn’t simply mean stories. Stories that fill narrative gaps do so by purposively or accidentally creating personal curiosity, imagination, intrigue, or mystery for people experiencing them.

Narrative gaps in our personal stories are resolved through other stories about our own experience, perhaps with a product or service, that help us make sense of the feelings evoked. Specifically, Hugh noted in a later post that people fill in narrative gaps with meanings they construct from their own stories. It is on this point that the concept of personas becomes relevant to narrative gaps and to a recent conception of how to use social media robots, especially DigiViduals™, in qualitative research. Moreover, in this respect I suggest that the challenges involved are analogous to key ones faced by industrial robotics.

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Ethnography, Globalization, and Experience Design

December 2, 2009

Rosetta Stone

One of the most visited posts on this blog is titled, Empathic Research Methods and Design Strategy. Indeed, if you google or bing “empathic research”, the post pops to the top few links, or vey close, often even ahead of IDEO. My aim in that post was to add to points made by Adam Silver, a Strategist at Frog Design, noting that globalization and digitalization in the 1990s resulted in product and service interfaces with more culturally diverse and geographically distributed customers. The combination of these economic and social forces led designers to search for new methods to augment artistic intuition about form and function. Considerations of form and function also required attention to feel, emotions, features, and interactivity attuned to the needs, wants, and beliefs of users/customers. The power of ethnographic research to discern empathic insights by observing and interpreting people’s cultural activity is now widely recognized.

Recognizing the implications of globalization for design and marketing is certainly not new. The now classic book, The Design Dimension, by Christopher Lorenz, explained the crux of the point as early as 1986. Lorenz noted that,

…globalization does not mean the end of market segments, but their explosion to worldwide proportions. Far from declining, the number of market segments may actually increase…Though industrial designers frequently can – and do – substitute for the absence of marketing imagination. In most companies the most potent force for imaginative marketing and product strategy is a real partnership between marketing and design (pp. 146-147).

 The significance of Lorenz’ point came back to me recently while reading “How does our language shape the way we think?, by Lera Boroditsky, an Assistant Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Symbolic Systems at Stanford University. Boroditsky’s research into language and thought complements a key point made in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, Gladwell informs us that one basic reason exists for the tendency of Chinese students to outperform others in math skills. Quite simply,

Take a look at the following list of numbers: 4,8,5,3,9,7,6. Read them out loud to yourself. Now look away, and spend twenty seconds memorizing that sequence before saying them out loud again.

If you speak English, you have about a 50 percent chance of remembering that sequence perfectly. If you’re Chinese, though, you’re almost certain to get it right every time. Why is that? Because as human beings we store digits for about two seconds at a time. We most easily memorize whatever we can say or read within that two second span. And Chinese speakers get that list of numbers—4,8,5,3,9,7,6—right almost every time because—unlike English speakers—since the Chinese language allows them to fit all those seven numbers into two seconds.

Whereas Gladwell’s interest is in the way language and culture affect our view of talent, Boroditsky is interested in whether, and how, language shapes the contours of thought itself, the kinds of questions people who speak a language are able to ask, and the kinds of significant symbols they recognize. Boroditsky’s research looks at an old question, and controversy, in anthropology and sociolinguistics — the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

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Validating Customer Communities

October 13, 2009
group

Courtesy of mtsofan's photostream on flickr.

I’ve known Steve Finikiotis over at Touchpoints for some time, and especially appreciate his concept of the Validation Principle. I’ve seen the Validation Principle at work in my own experience managing online communities, as well as participating in many online communities. The key to any online experience is engagement, and engagement means relating empathically to other people in a way that they appreciate. Steve recently outlined the relevance of the Validation Principle to Twitter use, and other social media, in a succinct way.

If you use Twitter or any of the other social networking tools, you’re bound to notice how much people crave acceptance and appreciation…Its obvious that people like being shown appreciation, but there’s more to being appreciated than meets the eye…When we’re validated by others, we’re inclined to bond with them. I call this the Validation Principle, and it’s one of the keys to building durable customer relationships.

The bond Steve is alluding to is a key part of any successful customer community. It contributes significantly to a community’s duration. Developing such bonds though is not an easy process, requiring time as well as attention. It involves learning from customers, and it involves their learning from your actions in relating to them.  

Rule number one in managing customer communities is don’t fail to listen. Additionally, failing to recognize that customers know you are listening but feel like you just aren’t hearing them is equally damaging. Sometimes it is possible to listen effectively in an online community itself. Other times, you may need to actually do research to directly engage and validate passive members who mostly consume content (sometimes referred to as lurkers) to really understand the dynamics of an issue playing out in an online customer community.

What have you learned from engaging passive content consumers in customer communities?

Posted by Larry R. Irons

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Empathy and Collaboration in Social Business Design

August 27, 2009
dachis_eco

Source: David Armano "Social Business by Design"

My first corporate position carried the title Methods Analyst, working for a large billing center serving a telephone company. One of my main tasks in that role involved learning how other employees performed their work and documenting it. On each project I typically spent several hours observing people work (what some today call rapid ethnography or guerilla ethnography) and then did in-depth interviews of the people I observed. Usually, at the end of my observation, I took responsibility for doing the work for a brief time under their watchful eye. In some sense you could say my work required me to continuously cross train in other people’s work, analyze the process, and write it up in a technical document.  The main insight I took away from that experience was an appreciation for the importance played by empathy in effective collaboration.

First off, collaboration isn’t just about people sharing information to achieve common goals. Collaboration is about people working with other people to achieve common goals and create value. Advocates of Enterprise 2.0 sometimes make the fundamental mistake of arguing that collaboration is really only about achieving business goals, leaving the implication that incorporating social software into the work flow of organizations is sufficient. Even though goal-orientation is a big part of collaborating, collaboration requires more to achieve goals effectively. It requires shared experience. As Dev Patnaik and Evan Rosen recently noted, empathy and collaboration go hand in hand.

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Social Business Design: Insights from HP’s WaterCooler

July 15, 2009
snakes_handling

Social Media Snake Oil?

Does your organization approach using social media in its business as something to fear or as something to evangelize? Several recent observers note that incorporating social media into business involves changing the culture underlying communication patterns and decision-making in many large organizations.

Amber Naslund, for instance, tells us that adopting social media means changing the mindset on how to do business. In particular, she says using social media in business means “giving your customers a visible, valuable say in how you do things, and having the faith that doing that is just good business.” On the other hand, Caroline Dangson, of IDC contends enterprises aren’t yet sold on social media and that “there are executives still fearful of the transparency that comes with the social media spotlight.” Specifically, Caroline says that,

Corporate culture has everything to do with adoption of social media. I believe the number one factor preventing full adoption of social media is the lack of executive trust in employees. This culture is about control and creates a workplace of silos. This type of workplace is not set up to be social and the silos are barriers to worker productivity.

So, here social media sits, between fear and faith. Needless to say, the truth about social media’s implications for business design lies somewhere in the middle. The fact of the matter, as Todd Defren tells us, is that we need to begin seriously discussing “how Social Media Thinking will impact the greater whole of the company.”

As noted in an earlier post, keeping in mind the distinctions between formal, process-oriented organization and informal, practice-based organization is crucial in thinking through the collaborative challenges posed by social software for enterprises and designing for the experiences supported. We can learn a bit about the complexity of the challenges involved by considering a recent framework offered on social business design by the Dachis Corporation team and discussing the way it relates to a recent report on an experiment in enterprise social media at the Social Computing Lab of HP Laboratories.


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Social Business Design and Multichannel Team Collaboration

July 7, 2009

hub

David Armano recently asked the question, Is the Hub and Spoke Model Adaptable? Anyone who ever worked on a project team in a large organization, especially corporate enterprises, probably recognizes the hub and spoke team design depicted in the graphic above. In this post I take a closer look at the hub and spoke design’s purpose in hierarchical, bureaucratic, organizations–the kind associated with industrial society. Our next post discusses how David answered his question and what an adaptable hub and spoke model implies for social business design.

Project management, typically consisting of one or more team leads clustered in the hub, considers the failure of any spoke’s functional work practices to align with approved best practices as evidence of process ignorance, a failure of competence in following the detailed process requirements in the team’s project plan, not a failure of the organization’s adaptive capability. The hub and spoke model’s basic idea is that a matrix-organization, consisting of cross-functional project teams, optimizes the traditional hierarchical organization by adding increased flexibility in responding to market demands for innovation in products and services, and maintaining adherence to a standard management process. However, as Rob Cross and Robert Thomas observe in their recent book, Driving Results Through Social Networks,

…most projects and processes are enabled by productive networks that form among some (but not all) team members in combination with relationships that bridge to key resources and expertise outside of the team.

In other words, much of the collaborative effort going into innovation projects also involves social networks that aren’t part of project teams. Instead, these networks emerge from relationships with others in the enterprise, or from outside friends and associates. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that some research into geographically distributed teams shows that on average, only 75% of the employees on any given distributed team agree about who is, and who is not, on their team. The challenge increases in importance as project teams form and disband more rapidly to manage risk and opportunity, thereby increasing the already fuzzy distinctions of formal organization, i.e. official teams, and informal organization, i.e. social teams.

Ross Mayfield summarized the point well in the following observation:

Process is “how work should be done.” And Practice is “how work is actually done.” When process fails (exceptions), people use practice to fix things. When process doesn’t exist, practice fills the void. While people don’t realize it when they engage in practice, they actually are tapping into community — an informal social network within or beyond the enterprise to discover expertise and get things done. The problem is that we haven’t had the tools to support good practice. The problem is that we haven’t developed the group memory around practice that creates institutional leverage. In fact, we still design organizations to prevent practice and cultures that hoard knowledge and communities. 

I suggest that the real value of social business design comes from the promise it holds for enabling management practices to develop to deal with the following fact:  Social networks do not respect organizational walls, they never did.

Shared experience, not just shared information, is fundamental to the social networks underlying collaboration and innovation. Many, if not most, employees don’t only need to get to know one another through reputation systems, like who people tag as possessing expertise. As Thomas Vander Wal continues to point out, comfort with one another is needed to develop a shared experience that encourages the open sharing of information.  

Collaboration means getting to know that other employees possess expertise on this or that topic, but also developing comfort with one another by sharing significant symbols relating to self, family, friends, and social activities, thereby understanding one another as people. Shared experience with co-workers and customers is a key factor in innovative business practices. It is especially important to multichannel collaboration.

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Social Business, the Golden Rule, and Open Empathy Organization

May 20, 2009

empathyI first took real notice of the term “social business” in a post early this year over at Peter Kim‘s blog. The concept of social business is not limited to those enterprises seeking to “generate social improvements and serve a broader human development purpose,” though these are certainly admirable goals. Rather, social business is increasingly discussed as a frame of analysis for considering the business implications of  large numbers of people using web 2.0 technologies, especially social media, within corporate enterprises as employees, or outside them as customers.

Channels, policies, processes, touch points and transactions are increasingly viewed as parts of the social experience organizations use to engage employees in collaboration, and customers in conversation. The common goal of the discussion involves transforming business practices to incorporate social relationships into the value proposition to customers and other stakeholders.

My recent reading of Wired to Care by Dev Patnaik (with Peter Mortensen) provided some basic insights for me in thinking about the development of social business practices. I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the intersection of experience design and organization. The book explores the concept of empathy in a manner that speaks to the social business discussion by pointing out that the result of a transformation is more than adoption of new technologies such as social media.

Wired to Care offers an approach to organizing business as well as creating design insights on how to engage customers to improve products and services. One of my earliest posts on Skilful Minds, Break the Golden Rule with Customer Dialogue Support, offered the following observation,

Many “customer care” approaches call for treating customers the way you’d like to be treated—the so-called Golden Rule. Treating customers the way we, as service providers want to be treated implies that we inherently know what’s best for them. A customer dialogue approach alternatively assumes that customers know, or can quickly learn, what’s best for them as individual customers. We need to treat customers the way their actions indicate they want, not the way we would want to be treated as a customer.

Reading Wired to Care persuaded me that my previous point only moved the discussion a part of the way to an understanding of the nuances of the Golden Rule for business. Wired to Care offers an interesting point of view on the limitations inherent in the traditional understanding of the Golden Rule, while contending that a full appreciation of it reveals truths about us as individuals, and our relationship to organizations, whether as employees or customers. It outlines three levels of the Golden Rule:

  1. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” — the most basic level with limited efficacy unless people share the same view of the world
  2. “Do unto others as they would have done to them” — requires increased empathy to distinguish the wants and needs of individuals
  3. “Do unto each other as we would have done unto us” — provides for empathy by focusing on “how we’d all like to be treated, inside the company and out,” yet also recognizes that good business practice might additionally require treating people “better than they expect to be treated”

Dev contends that the third level of the Golden Rule provides a basis for integrating empathy into the everyday practices of organizations. Though he does not use the term social business, Dev’s analysis offers a foundational strategy for implementing social business through the concept of an Open Empathy Organization.

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