The Experience Era

“Half a century ago, the life expectancy of a Fortune 500 firm was 75 years. Now it’s less than 15 years. The external environment is changing faster every day, and even our best organizations are failing to learn and adapt.” – Intertwingled, Peter Morville

It’s here and it’s here to stay. Gone are the days of brand-deities, worshipped for their mystique and perceived magical powers of persuasion. The age of corporate dinosaurs who rule the land is over. We have entered the Experience Era.

Today’s user is evolved. They are savvy, smart, and they don’t trust advertising. They’ve realized that what they want is more important than what companies want to give them. They look for reviews and relatable experiences rather than fixating on industry awards. They know they have options. Loyalty only lasts about as long as a cell-phone battery.

This is a new era, where customers and users rule and bottom-lines are drawn and quartered when the experience is not up to their expectations.

Your experience is your brand.

If your customers can’t get to the information they need when they need it, their next stop is only a Google search away. And once your blue Google link turns purple… there’s no going back.

Now, I could walk you through the A to Z path of best practices and planning on how to transition from a brand-centric to a user-centric business model. But that would be fairly useless: unless you live in some sort of bubble from the 1990s you are already transitioning. You are desperately trying to evolve so that you can survive the Experience Era rather than getting fossilized in the tar pit of corporate stagnation.

How’s it going? I get it. You have an incredibly complex structure in place, and you need to figure out how to adapt that structure without missing a beat or a quarterly earnings target. It’s like trying to remodel a house while still living in it. Not only have I been working in this industry for over 15 years, I’ve also experienced the discomfort living hell of about dozen home remodeling projects. The key to survival is simple. It is agile. You need to adapt to survive. You need to re-program the DNA of your organization so that you don’t become a corporate dinosaur. Rather you must be a color-changing, adaptable, intelligent eight-legged octopus, who's DNA can shift on the fly rather than waiting for natural selection. So, how can you change your organizational DNA?

The three most important letters in corporate DNA are M. V. P. 

Minimum Viable Product – By definition a product with just enough features to gather validated learning about the product and continue its development.  

We bought our house 3 years ago. My husband and I put 10 cities on a spreadsheet, compared each of the cities on 7 or 8 different weighted factors, we rated each of the cities in each of the categories and Seattle came out on top by a wide margin. So we flew out to Seattle and looked at 20+ houses in one weekend and bought one.

Before we moved, we showed photos to the kids. They weren’t terribly interested or impressed with the house. Then they saw the pictures of the tree house in the back yard. Whatever reservations they had before were wiped away when they saw the big beautiful tree house suspended far above the forest floor, nestled among 150-foot-tall cedar trees with primordial ferns scattered below.

My husband and I arrived 3 weeks before the kids. The day after we closed on our house I climbed up to the tree house. I had visions of pirates, jungle animals, and more. As I climbed the ladder I could feel the structure sway. When I reached the top, I looked out across the acres of forest next to our house and then looked up at a roof barely tacked together by 1 x 2 inch boards.

The beautiful tree house was a disaster. It had been built by a guy who had a vision of what a tree house should look like, but he’d skipped over a few important things. Like a solid foundation, or correctly pitched roof that drained the Seattle rain, or side rails that would actually keep human children from falling out of the tree house. The swaying I felt was due to the fact that one of the 3 bolts holding the entire structure to the trees had sheered off due to the force of one moving tree being bolted to two other trees, which were moving in different directions.

So like a CEO who has just seen the writing on the wall, I panicked. I called a contractor and got a bid to rebuild the tree house so my children had an epic structure, fit for safe adventures of all kinds. When I receive the bid, I made that sound you make when the wind’s been knocked out of you by some invisible financial force: it’s a cross between a gasp and a cough and a sigh. The number at the bottom of the page was so far out of budget it was in another solar system. I quickly assessed the situation and asked myself. What is the minimum I need to do so that my children can feasibly play on this tree house without risk of bodily harm?

After much discussion and even more planning, we found the intersection between what we could afford and what we needed to do to make the structure safe. Two days before the kids arrived the treehouse was deemed ‘safe’ for pirates, monkeys, and other creatures.  

Here lies not the first step, because unless you’ve been living under a rock you are already on the path, but the next step on your journey to becoming a user-centered organization.

At a minimum my tree house needed to be safe. So we put most of our budget into building a solid foundation. We sunk four large posts into the ground and tied the tree house to a single tree. And unless you were really looking you probably wouldn’t have noticed the change. But it was the key to holding up the entire structure. It made the entire experience possible. Now the tree could sway and the tree house would sway with it but it would stay solid because it was anchored by the 4 posts below.

For many companies the MVP should be identified with the user’s needs in mind. What do the users need most right now to accomplish their goals and how can we give them that without tearing down the entire tree house and spending 6 months to rebuild it? Not what do our neighbors think is best. Not what does my sister-in-law think the tree house should look like. 

The problem is this: most of the time the MVP isn’t sexy. It’s 4-by-12-inch posts sunk into concrete. It’s not some super slick social media chrome add-on. It’s not a wearable widget beacon that reads customer’s body temp and automatically sends signals to the nearest customer service rep about their feelings about the shirt they are considering buying. (Although, that’s not a bad idea.) It’s most often something simple like quality content, improved search, or a streamlined checkout experience. It’s a solid post in the ground that can be tied to the sway of user’s needs, wants, and desires.

Once we’d done what we needed so the treehouse wouldn’t fall down, we slowed down a bit. We had blown the treehouse budget on the foundation. We added a rug, a make-shift table, and some thrift store chairs. It looked good. But most importantly, the kids loved it. We started planning for the next phase. We had all sorts of input and a backlog of improvements that we wanted to do next.

 Then, a year after we moved in, we decided we were ready to add goats to the insanity of our lives. We needed a goat shed. Like many CEO’s I was impatient. I wanted the goats yesterday. So we put up an ugly but very serviceable electric wire fence to keep the coyotes out. Then I looked at the still-not-ideal but functional treehouse and decided to give my kids the experience of milking goats and making cheese. The ground floor of their now-stabilized treehouse would serve nicely as the foundation for a goat shed.

So I went to the store, bought a bunch of rough-hewn cedar boards, and fancy screws that took less strength to screw in (hello! talk about user-centered design…women in their 30’s and 40’s are now among the fastest-growing demographic of DIY’ers and now they have screws that are easier to screw in…and guess what? the big burly contractor dudes love them too!!!) 

In about 2-days we had a goat shed. The still-wonky tree house was now giving us 100% more value with an investment that was about 2% of what we invested originally. The goat shed idea had jumped ahead of many other treehouse improvements, but the users and stakeholders alike agreed on the decision. The users (aka kids) helped modify the tree house and continued to give us creative suggestions on how the goat shed could also provide structure for a hidden loft (in case robbers ever came and we needed to hide from them, of course).

But focusing on the user doesn’t mean you don’t get to be creative. It doesn’t mean your next project is going to cost you major moola. When you combine good business sense with solid user research and user-centered strategy, everyone wins. The CEO, the stakeholders, and the users: in this case, the goats and the kids both.

The difficulty in making the shift from brand centric to user centric business is directly tied to your business’s ability to affect change.

Is your organization’s approach to change glacial or meteoric?  These are the key questions you need to ask:

  • Culture – Is your culture one of invention and change or is it one of ‘this is how we’ve always done it’ or follow-the-leader? Is your culture diverse, inclusive, and flexible? Do you look for new hires that ‘fit in’ or do you look for people that break the mold?

 

  • Risk tolerance – Is your company willing to entertain new ideas? Are they willing to not only talk to users but to listen to them? Are you willing to invest in critical infrastructure needed to create an experience that delights customers while allowing them to accomplish their goals?

 

  • Leadership - Are they interested in knowing more about your customers/users? Does your leadership understand and advocate for a customer/user centered experience strategy? Do they want to cultivate a culture of innovation and change?

 

The answers to these questions are rarely a solid yes or no. “Kind of.” “So-and-so is an advocate for user experience, but that other guy he’s all about cost-cutting.”

Where your company lands on the spectrum is measured by the positive answers to these questions.

I hate to break it to you, but most organizations are glaciers. Even if every answer was a resounding yes, the policies, procedures, and ‘best-practices’ that are documented on that 800-page share-point site mean that you an iceberg stuck in a glacier. If you are at a fast-moving start-up or start-up like groups within a large organization, you may be a little more meteor. But most start-ups are not reading blogs like this one. They are too busy hurtling ahead toward an impact that may create a new lake, transform a planet, expire millions of enormous creatures… or just burnout and die before they even break through the atmosphere.

Being a glacier is not so bad. You have a history; you have stability; you have the power to change things. Have you ever seen the fjords of Norway? You can’t see a glacier moving, but it in perpetual motion, always changing the landscape underneath it.

Glaciers can still make an impact, and if that impact is in the right place at the right time, it can change the landscape. The movement on our treehouse over the past 3 years has felt slow to me and I know it’s felt glacial to my then 9 and now 12-year-old-son. This summer we are finally enclosing the treehouse. The kids are on their annual trip to New Mexico and when they get home, there will be windows, a new door, and a roof that’s pitched correctly so that they and the goats below them all stay dryer this winter. Next summer we may even add the zip-line that’s on their nice-to-have list… But believe me I’m going to try and engineer that zip line so I can somehow move hay to the goats more easily! The glacial speed of our improvements was bemoaned by users and stakeholders alike, but despite the pace, the treehouse experience has been a solid success. Captain Pinker-Pants has ruled the woods and Jasmine gave birth to triplets this spring in the goat shed.

We knew the tree house needed to be safe. So we started there. We invested the critical time and money to make it so. When a glacier finally makes a move a big chunk of ice falls off into the ocean, it makes a spectacular creak and grown and then you see the huge splash. That part of the glacier may not shift again for years. But a few minutes or days later another chunks of ice will fall.  

As long as you keep moving, you can continue to have impact. You can make big splashes, while moving a large organization forward. Take small steps quickly. Identify the MVP, scope it to fit time and budget, then finish it, watch the splash, and plan your next move. Before you know it you will be adapting and changing and experiencing real success.

If you incorporate the MVP into your corporate DNA, you will not only survive The Experience Era, you will adapt and thrive in our new user-centered world.