Believe in Better

On Saturday evening we went to hear my good friend Lauren Currie speak at the University of Dundee. Lauren is one of the people who’ve inspired me on my journey in the world of design over the last decade, so it’s always a delight to see her.

When she introduces herself on stage she’ll typically say, “I’m Lauren Currie and I believe in better”. It’s a simply phrase, but one that sits at the core of everything she is and does.

Lauren has this ability to make you look at the world in a different way, to see the things that aren’t working, and then to do something about it. All with a focus on social change and making our world better.

It’s become a mantra for me too over the past few years. It’s why I do what I do. Why I get involved in the things that I do. It’s a question I ask of myself each and every day – are you really making things better today?

Let me explain.

My world is the world of business. It’s where I’ve spent the last 30 years of my life. For several years I’ve been trying to find my ‘thing’. Where can I make most impact; how can I help people the most?

It was staring me in the face, and it was my son & business partner Andy who helped me to see it. You see, I’m an accountant. Always have been and always will be. An accountant with an ability to communicate often complex things in an easy to understand way. An accountant who’s embraced the world of design and who believes in better.

That’s why we setup our accounting business last year. We could see that the world of accounting wasn’t delivering what customers needed. Accounting needed to change and we were up for the challenge of leading the way.

We’re now 9 months into the journey and I believe that we’re making a difference. But there’s still lots to be done. We’ve only just scratched the surface of what’s possible.

Do you believe in better? How can you use your skills and experience to make a positive difference? I’d love to hear your thoughts….

Let’s talk about paper

It’s been a week of talking about paper. Specifically, organisations that continue to insist on printing & sending information to customers, whether they like it or not.

In 2018 there’s really no excuse for doing that. The common refrain is, “well, we’ve always done it like that”. However that doesn’t mean you should be.

Last weekend I recorded a video about accountants posting financial statements to their clients for signing, without any explanation of what these statements mean. It’s a practice that many accountants have used for decades, but what we found in our research before we launched Ashton McGill was that clients really dislike this. They often don’t understand what they’re being asked to sign, it feels cold and impersonal, and there’s no attempt to explain or educate.

That video generated a lot of interest and people shared their individual stories with us. We got a bunch of enquiries on the back of it, and so for we’ve won 3 new clients as a result. There’s a message there for the luddites who insist on continuing to send stuff out in the mail……

The second example this week was a local college whose finance department insist on posting paper invoices out to customers. This seems to be a practice that many education institutions still use. They also expected us to phone them to make payment. I mean, really?!? Their process couldn’t have been less customer-friendly if they had tried.

And yet we see this sort of thing time and time again. Systems designed around the needs of the organisation, without any thought for the user or customer. Systems that are never reviewed, they just do it that way because……..well, because that’s how they’ve always done it.

Surely we can do better than that? You have my email address, you know my name, company, and our physical address (because you insist on mailing stuff there!), so why not email me a copy instead? It’s costing you money to post documents to me. Not only the paper cost, the ink, the envelope, the postage, but also the cost of someone’s time to do this.

Then I’ve got to do something with the paper documents. I’ll sign them if I have to (assuming I understand what I’m signing!), scan them, then email them back to you (see the irony there?) before shredding them. What a waste of time.

So, come on. If you’re the recipient of this type of behaviour, then insist they change (unless you like receiving mail!). And if you’re printing, stuffing envelopes, sticking on a stamp, then mailing them – ask yourself why? More importantly, ask your customers what they want.

We don’t need to print. Not only will it save you time, it’s also better for the environment. It’s time to be better.

Mind your language!

Recently I had the opportunity to spend a day working with two of the world’s best designers. It was an inspirational day, learning from people at the very top of their profession. In sport it would be like being able to spend a day training with Lionel Messi or Eliud Kipchoge (one for the runners!).

During my years of working in and around the design profession, I’ve noticed that with the best designers, everything they do is thoughtfully done. Right down to the words they use.

Designers are more likely to use open questions. Instead of saying, “do you think we could do X?”, they’ll say, “How could we do X?”. It’s a subtle but important difference. The answer to the first question could easily be “No”, whereas the second question invites discussion. Good design is about conversation.

On that day in question, there was a word & phrase that our world class designers kept on using. They were even committed to print on our agenda! What were they? Let me tell you.

The phrase was “How might we…..”. Every question or discussion was prefaced with these three words. How Might We is an actual design technique developed by IDEO to turn challenges or problems into opportunities for design. Each of these words is there for a reason:

  • How invites us to be curious, to be inventive and to imagine
  • Might suggests there could be multiple ways to solve this problem
  • We encourages collaboration

So from now on, whenever you’re faced with a challenge or a problem that needs solving, use these three words. How might we…..

The other word that was used a lot, particularly in the breakout sessions in the afternoon, was Argument. After being set the challenge “How might we…” do something, we were then told to ‘have an argument’ about it within our groups. Not a discussion, but an argument. I’d never seen this approach used before, and will admit that when I run workshops I ask my groups to have a discussion.

I guess the reason for telling us to have an argument, is to encourage people to speak up and have different views. Often a discussion ends up being led by the strongest of the group. I saw this happen at a workshop we did at the University recently – you’re left wondering what ideas weren’t shared and about the possible solutions that never emerged.

However, giving us permission to have an argument, to share our views no matter how diametrically opposed they are, makes sure that we get everything on the table. It was incredibly clever, and I’ll be stealing it for my own workshops. In fact I’ve already tried it a couple of times!

In our busy lives, it might seem inconsequential to spend time thinking about the words we use. However, until the robots take over then we’re designing with and for humans, so using the right language in every situation will make a big difference in the outcomes we achieve.

Do you ask open or closed questions? How might we help you change? Let’s have an argument about words in the comments below!

Quit moaning about things!

Doesn’t it just piss you off when people moan about stuff?

Maybe it’s a British thing, but people like nothing better than a good moan. I spent 18 months working at a University with over 3,000 employees. I hadn’t worked in such a big organisation since I left EY in 1993. It was incredible, moaning and complaining about stuff seemed to be the norm for so many. Yet no-one that complained ever did anything to make things better. They just complained.

They call these kind of people ‘Mood Hoovers’ – they suck all of the energy and positivity from you.

Gary Vaynerchuk is not everyone’s cup of tea, and there is a bit of swearing in this video, but he makes a very good point.

Now that I’ve got that out of my system, what should we do about stuff we’re not happy with? My friend Lauren Currie made a good point in a talk she gave at DJCAD recently. Lauren’s message was that you need to stop complaining about stuff – no more than 3 times is reasonable. After that, do something about it, don’t just complain. I think 3 times is being generous to be honest.

The question then becomes – How do we fix it?

I grew up in the business world of the 80s & 90s, and the mantra back then was ‘it’s not a problem, it’s a solution opportunity!’ or ‘don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions!’. And by doing that, we got stuff done.

But was that the best way to do it, to make change happen? I don’t believe so.

You see, I believe in the power of the group. I believe in collaboration; that by working on problems together we will get a better outcome. In fact, I believe that we need to challenge the problem before we start doing any of that!

Why do I say that? Well, it may just be that the problem you’re trying to solve isn’t the right one. It may just be the manifestation of a bigger, much deeper-rooted problem. So all you’re doing is fixing the effect, not the cause.

Here’s my 7 stage process for solving problems: –

  1. STOP COMPLAINING ABOUT STUFF!!! Yes, I’m shouting 🙂
  2. Create an environment where you can share the stuff that frustrates you. That could be a group of friends (like the awesome CMA Community that I’m a part of), it could be your fellow students at University, or it could be in your business. Whatever, just make sure you do this.
  3. Bring your problems and frustrations to the group. Working together, analyse what’s gone wrong and try to get to the bottom of the problem. What’s the real reason why things aren’t working?
  4. Start generating ideas for how it could be improved. At this stage, no idea is a bad idea – it’s more important that you just think of as many ways as possible of making a difference.
  5. Using these ideas, work together to design a solution(s) that will solve the problem.
  6. Prototype and then test these solutions. Gather feedback, and iterate.
  7. Implement the final solution. Problem solved!

Now you may be reading this and saying ‘that’s all very well, but how am I supposed to do this when I work for the NHS [insert any other behemoth]?’

I refer you to Ghandi, who said this:


Back to GaryVee’s video to close. He might swear a lot, but he does talk a lot of sense. We have a choice – we can either choose to moan and complain, or we can choose to take action. The latter makes a difference to the world, and it’s a lot more fun!

What’s stopping you?

We need to complain more!

We’re not very good at complaining in the UK. It takes a lot for us Brits to get annoyed and make a fuss. But that’s not helping anyone.

Let me tell you why.

Quite simply, if we don’t complain when we’re not happy, things will never improve. But we don’t do it. I make my living from helping companies better understand their customers and yet I’m culpable too.

We just don’t like to make a fuss. It’s not very British.

Recently I had a bit of a situation. I dropped my iPhone and smashed the screen. The iPhone 6 is a slippery devil, although to be fair I shouldn’t have been using it whilst I was on my bike in the garage. A combination of sweaty hands and a cold handset meant that it was probably destined to land on the floor. Shame it was a concrete one!

A few tweets later and I had the name of a company in Dundee that could repair it. I googled them and found out that they were open 7 days a week from 8am to 8pm.


So I got up early the next morning and was at their door just before 8am. Which was unfortunate, as the sign on their door said they were open 8.30am to 6.30pm. Why hadn’t they updated the website???

Eventually the doors opened and in I went. I was greeted pleasantly enough and the guy took down some details, punching them into his computer screen. This was when I began to get concerned.

Him – “What number can we get you on, so we can text you when it’s ready?”

Me – “Erm, you’ve got my phone. You won’t be able to text me!”

Him – “We’ll call you too, it’s no problem”.

Me – “But you’ll have my phone…..”.

Him – “Don’t worry, we’ll call and text you to let you know it’s ready”.

Me – “Okay. I’ll call YOU at lunchtime to find out what’s happening”.

D’oh! This wasn’t going well.

I called at lunchtime, no answer. I called back a little later. No, they hadn’t started work on my phone yet. “You can track the progress online if you go to this url”. Okay, that sounds better.

The webpage was awful, really hard to navigate. Turns out you have to click on ‘Invoice’ to get information. Obvs.

Eventually at 17.21 it refreshed. ‘Phone is an iPhone 6S, not a 6’. Well yes, I know that.

17.23 ‘Will cost an extra £25 to do this’.

17.24 ‘We don’t have a 6S screen in stock, so would need to order it’

17.25 ‘Have called customer and left a message’. On the phone that you have. Idiots!!

So now I have to hot-tail it through from Perth to get there in time and collect my (still broken) phone. I’m going to Glasgow the next day and need my phone. This is so frustrating!!!

I get home, google the Apple Store and book a Genius Bar appointment in Edinburgh for the Friday. I’m in Fife anyway, so it’s not a massive hassle to head over the Bridge and get my phone fixed properly.

I go there for my 4.50pm appointment and a very slick process gets my phone fixed within 70 minutes. I’m home by 7.30pm.

So did I complain to the company in Dundee? No, to my shame I didn’t. I just didn’t have the energy. I’ll never use them again and I’ll make a point of telling people about my experience.

But that’s not helping them. They won’t realise how pissed off they made me. How unfriendly their systems & processes are. What it feels like to be the customer, who just wants their phone fixed.

Nope, they won’t learn any of that. And so they’ll just go on delivering a sub-standard service. Because they don’t know how bad their service is.

This experience is happening day in, day out, across the globe. In the USA, people are better at complaining so the service provider gets the feedback and can deal with it. Maybe that’s why the service over there is better?

So if we want to improve experiences then the answer is quite simple. We need to start complaining more!

Upping the pace

It’s been an incredibly busy few weeks, and officially leaving my role at the University at the end of February has meant an even stronger focus on doing the One Thing that will move this business forward.

This week I’m delivering 4 workshops. Crazy! Three of those are on customer experience, it seems that this ‘language’ is finally beginning to hit the mark here in the UK. Customer experience is already big in the States, but as with many things, we’re slow to catch to here in the UK.

What’s interesting for me is that in the US, they are quite process or system focused, whereas our approach comes from the world of service design, so first and foremost it’s about people and how they experience a service. How it makes them feel.

Now, once we understand that, then it’s absolutely about creating systems and processes to ensure that we then consistently deliver an experience that our customers will enjoy. However the way we get to that position is fundamentally different. And it’s better.

You see, this is a co-designed process. We involve the customers and the staff in the company. We work together to design the new or enhanced service. And along the way we’re rapidly prototyping, trying stuff out and seeing what works and what doesn’t.

In the Lean Startup, Eric Reis talked about the Build-Measure-Learn loop. Well for us, there’s a whole phase before that. Ask-Listen-Prototype-Test, then we Build-Measure-Learn. It’s a lot quicker, and more cost-effective, to get to a solution that your customers will love. Involving them in the design is the clever bit.

If you want to learn more about what customer experience is, and how we go about creating great experiences, then you can sign up for our Free 7-day email course here.

Now back to the University. Although I’m not going to be there in the same capacity, you may not have seen the last of me just yet. More news soon…..




Why Marketers NEED to become design thinkers

I was driving home tonight listening to the Marketing Companion Podcast with Mark Schaefer and Tom Webster and all of a sudden it hit me square between the eyes.

If you want to be a successful marketer in 2016 and beyond then you NEED to get good at design thinking. 

Really? Has he truly lost it this time? 


Let me tell you why.

Marketing is all about getting the message about what you do out to your target audience right? Well why is it that more than 50% of the startups that fail do so because they’re selling something that people don’t want?

We’re stuck in this trap, been doing it for generations, where we build shit, spend money on great advertising, and try to convince people that they need our product or service.

Interruption marketing at its’ finest.

It used to work, but that was the days before the web and particularly the growth of social media. Much more difficult these days. You might sell them something once, but if they didn’t really need it, or felt conned into the purchase afterwards, they ain’t coming back. And they’re going to tell a LOT of people.

So what’s the alternative?

Talk to people! Ask them what their needs and problems are. Figure out how to solve those and if your audience is big enough then you’re onto a winner.

The days of coming up with an idea, hunkering down and building the product, are over.

So as marketers you need to learn how to ask users what their needs or problems are. Sharpen up your observation skills. Get those Spidey-senses working. Then feed that data back into the company.

Without sales there is nothing for the production guys to make or for the accountants to count.

And without great marketing, without delivering a product or service that solves your customers needs or problems, the sales team have nothing to sell.

So Marketing people, you’re going to like this – add Design Thinking to your armoury and you will become THE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON in the company.