Poor Service Isn’t Always An Accident. It’s Often By Design

In markets without much competition, organisations can deliver bad service not because of poor design and management, but simply because they can.

Benjamin P. Taylor shared a great thread on Twitter this week outlining the experience of attempting to get some housing support for an elderly relative.

I say ‘great thread’ when I really mean ‘depressingly accurate nightmare’. Unfortunately it represents a lot of people’s experience of accessing health/housing/social care.

Benjamin simply wanted to make an enquiry, to talk to someone, but is kept in a system designed to keep the user in a Moebius Loop of enquiry whilst they are assessed, processed and triaged. Anything to keep them away from the people they really need to talk to.

It does happen outside the public sector too. I’ve had a similar experience this week with an airline who emailed me to suggest I ‘try to speak to someone’ despite the fact I’d only emailed them out of desperation because I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to speak to me. I went on the ‘live chat’ to get help but was told the live chat was too busy and I should try phoning. The phone message said they were too busy and I should try the live chat, or send them an email.

This is what happens when cost-driven demand management decides how users must interact with the system. Humanity , and sheer common sense, have been designed out in the name of efficiency.

But what price efficiency?

Due to the nature of my work I’m routinely contacted by suppliers and vendors keen to get my view on their product. Many are great, but others talk of ‘putting you more in control of customer demand’, and of self-serve being the holy grail of customer service. Clearly people who’ve been to Nando’s and thought that was a desirable model for public service.

Back in the nineties call centres were designed to keep the customer away from who they actually wanted to speak to. It was never ever about customer service – just managing demand. Unfortunately – rather than seeing the call centre as an aberration, many organisations have decided to build out from it and enshrine it in digital form as part of a ‘transformation’.

Most ‘transformations’ are nothing of the sort, but simply a digital overlay on top of how business has always been done. The process that Benjamin describes is complex but can be made easy. People just don’t want to make it easy.

Many of our organisations — despite the rhetoric — have policies and procedures that are profoundly anti-customer. We have built checks, balances and verifications into our process because , deep down, we don’t actually trust the motivations of the public.

This is an uncomfortable truth — but goes some way to explain the difference in satisfaction levels between sectors. Customer service is often so bad precisely because it’s more efficient for the company.

In some rationed services – like health and housing – forcing customers to talk to a computer or chatbot, circulating them through phone menus or getting them to sit on hold “while serving other customers” serves a deterring role. People give up. This isn’t an accident, it’s by design. We are being purposefully shit – and excelling at it.

Earlier this week I spoke to a wonderfully helpful young woman trapped in the bureaucratic hell of the UK’s Best Loved Institution. When I asked if I could possibly change an appointment – even by two hours to help me out with a work commitment – she smiled and suggested I don’t try to change it. “First of all”, she said, “I don’t have authority to change anything. But if you try and change your appointment the system will just put you at the back of the queue and you’ll have to wait another month. I know, it’s stupid. We’ve all said that but they just won’t change it.”

Who are ‘they’? – and how can we make them accountable for shocking design that has real world consequences? As I discussed in the Outside Innovation podcast, it’s incredibly hard for individuals to change a system, but individuals can form a collective and challenge processes that are profoundly anti-customer and anti-employee.

Poor design will end when the public says it ends. When we name and shame and call things out publicly.

The pandemic has been an accelerant of most things. Any trend: social, business, or personal has locked on fast-forward. That includes customer dissatisfaction with poor service. As many companies have greatly expanded digital service options during the lockdowns the difference between those who did it well and those who have delivered a bodge job are there for all to see.

Customers won’t stay silent for long. They want contextualised interactions; seamless experience across channels; anytime, anywhere access to content and services and – guess what – the ability to speak to a human when they damn well want to.

Cartoon Image via Tom Fishburne

Why We Bend The Rules And What To Do About It

How do you rate yourself for complying with Covid restrictions? Are you saint or sinner? Or are you, like most of us, somewhere in between?

Despite the blame game being played by politicians, most of us do comply with the rules, just not all of the time..

How do you rate yourself for complying with Covid restrictions? Are you saint or sinner? Or are you, like most of us I suspect, somewhere in between?

If you’ve noticed more traffic on the roads when you’ve been out walking or exercising, you could be forgiven for thinking that people aren’t taking this lockdown quite as seriously as the first one.

At first glance the statistics seem to bear that out. According to data provided by Citymapper, journeys during the first lockdown fell to less than 10% of pre-pandemic levels. This time round however, things are slightly different. As the graph below shows, movement has fallen since the latest lockdown was announced, but it isn’t down to the levels of March and April.

The Covid 19 Social Study show us that although we do follow the rules, we only follow them most – not all – of the time. The study, which has collected responses from more than 70,000 participants, found that the number of people reporting “majority compliance” – that is, following most or almost all of the rules – rose to 96% for the week ending 10 January 2021, which was the highest figure since last April.

However the number of people saying that they were in “complete compliance” with the rules is at just 56%.

So people know the rules and in general they want to follow them. On the other hand, large numbers of us have also become accustomed to bending them.

Hands up. I’ve bent them. I went to a cinema and to a restaurant in a Tier 2 area when I was in Tier 3. I’ve visited family members who live on their own but are outside a support bubble. I’ve also driven at 35mph in a 30mph zone and have on occasion cheated whilst doing e-learning tests at work.

95% of the time though – I think I’m a good citizen.

Only very few of us are completely compliant with all of the rules. Indeed, one of the strangest phenomenons of this pandemic has been the tendency for people to bemoan that the park or the shops are overcrowded and condemn this is as irresponsible behaviour, whilst they themselves also admit being there. ‘I was there, but it was clearly nothing to do with me’.

This shows that most of us don’t regard ourselves as rule breakers, we are just tweaking the rules to suit our personal circumstances. And we are much more accepting of our own breaches than we are of those of others.

This applies to all rules , not just COVID restrictions, and there are important lessons for any of us who design rules or procedures in the workplace, or are trying to encourage better social or health outcomes.

We often lament: “why do people take short cuts?”, “why do they eat stuff that’s bad for them?”, “why can’t they follow procedures?”, “why do they disable safety features?” The simple answer is because they are human, and they do whatever is easiest first.

The more complex reason involves the theory of risk compensation. Essentially everybody has their own level of acceptable or ‘target risk’. If they perceive that the risks of bending a rule are lower than their target risk then they will take additional risks (i.e shortcuts) in order to reap the benefits and rewards from doing so.

This is how desire pathways come into being. Nobody wants to be the first person to cut across the freshly laid grass just to save yourself a minute of walking. But once you see other people doing it, it becomes more and more acceptable. You join in.

So what can we do to get people to stop bending the rules?

First of all we need to stop demonising people for minor transgressions. As a piece by Stephen Reicher and John Drury in the British Medical Journal points out – the narrative of blame employed by the media and some politicians is both problematic and dangerous. Levels of adherence to Covid rules are astonishingly high – despite the hardships people are experiencing.

“The discrepancy between what people are doing and what we think people are doing is instructive and points to what is termed the availability effect. That is, we judge the incidence of events based on how easily they come to mind – and violations are both more memorable and more newsworthy than acts of adherence”.

The more we report – and exaggerate – the incidence of house parties, crowded shopping centres, and people not wearing masks, the more likely people are to “develop a biased perception of the level and type of violations, which runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we believe that the norm is to ignore the rules, it may lead us to ignore them too”.

Secondly, following the rules is easier when you have the right resources. I have a job which means I can work from home easily. I have the space. I don’t have kids to look after. I have the income to buy the right technology. Data from the first lockdown showed that the most deprived were six times more likely to leave home and three times less likely to self-isolate, but that they had the same motivation as the most affluent to do so. The more deprived you are the more risks you have to expose yourself to. The only risk to many of the middle class is the risk from Ocado and Amazon delivery drivers.

Finally – people tend not to break rules when they are emotionally invested in them or they have been created by the community themselves. Indeed – it has been one of the great missed opportunities of the pandemic not to encourage more locally led dialogue and devolved decision making.

What makes a rule stick?

A good rule is clear, sensible, and not punitive or controlling. We adopt them when we believe they have value and make a better society, for us and others.

Hearing positive stories about people making sacrifices and sharing a social contract makes us more likely to react positively. Nobody wants to be an outlier.

Conversely, the more we hear talk of ‘covidiots’, anti-vaxxers, and pandemic fatigue the more likely we are to bend rules.

Ultimately , the stories we tell each other create the society we get to live in.

The Complex Task of Simplicity

If you want to make things truly simple to use by your customers, you will nearly always have to make your organization take on more complexity – Gerry McGovern

Yesterday, I delivered a talk at a conference that was aimed at getting organisations ‘back to basics’.

The problem, I proposed, was that we live in a complex world and many of us just can’t help trying to help tackle every issue.

  • Climate Change
  • Wellbeing
  • Income inequality
  • Health

That’s often in addition to the core reason we were set up in the first place. The problems we were set up to solve were once quite simple, but as organisations get larger there’s more technology, more people, more regulation. We put together processes, controls, reviews, and structures and these factors together create a great amount of complexity.

There’s a paradox here. Although we appreciate the benefits of simple customer experiences and great design in our everyday lives, we often forget all about it when we walk through the door at work.

My contention is we have stopped seeing it. We don’t even recognise how complex we’ve become.

There’s some science to explain how we may have become ‘complexity blind’.

Our brains cope with complexity by identifying key features and filtering out unnecessary detail. On seeing that the space you enter has walls, a floor and a ceiling, you know you have entered a room and can usually ignore the details. You can find where to sit quite easily without getting all distracted by the view out the window or the pictures on walls. This is an example of what the French psychologist Jean Piaget termed a “schema”. Schemas can be useful because they allow us to take shortcuts in interpreting the vast amount of information that is available in our environment.

When your working day is crammed full of meetings and emails it’s easier to just screen out the bullshit and the complexity and just , well,  try to cope.

And sometimes we don’t just take mental shortcuts – we take physical shortcuts too.

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Desire paths were beautifully described by Robert McFarlane as “paths & tracks made over time by the wishes & feet of walkers, especially those paths that run contrary to design or planning”, They spring up when humans vote against design – with their feet.

But desire paths exist within our organizations too, when colleagues make illicit shortcuts through bad policy and procedure to make their working lives a little easier.

Sometimes there are very visible signs of complexity , such as long lists of KPIs or structure charts that look like a company is preparing for an invasion of Europe rather than serving customers.

Last year Sky admitted that they had identified over 2,000 KPIs within their business. They took radical action and reduced it to just 30. Interestingly , they did this by cutting the people involved by 84%. They admitted the KPIs fulfilled no purpose whatsoever and  were just in the business because “someone liked them”.

How can we simplify complex organisations? 

As Steve Jobs said, simple can be harder than complex. Most of our organisations default to the difficult for a reason – it’s easier.

Being simpler means spending more time in problem definition, and more time observing what users need and how they behave. Einstein believed that the quality of the solutions we come up with will be in direct proportion to the quality of the description of the problem we’re trying to solve. Not only will solutions be more abundant and of higher quality, but they’ll be achieved much more simply.

Simplicity also means saying no to things and doing less. Many of an organization’s activities are misaligned from , or have poorly defined, strategic objectives. We often anchor around the wrong thing. That’s why some big institutions have no chance – they are hit by random plans and transformations rather than anchoring around purpose and iteration.

This takes discipline though as it means killing vanity projects and saying no when something doesn’t fit into the plan

It also means taking a different view of design – and removing activities rather than adding them in.

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The Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman challenged this thinking with his idea of “Shared Space”. His concept was simple. Remove all traffic lights, signs, and road markings. The results were the opposite of what most people expected. The traffic moved slower, people paid more attention, and accidents ultimately declined.

Monderman’s theory was that increasing traffic regulations reduces personal responsibility, the need for drivers and pedestrians to pay attention to what is happening around them.

“The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there’s a problem with a road, they always try to add something,” Monderman says. “To my mind, it’s much better to remove things.”

What would our organisations look like if , when faced with a problem, we focused on removing things rather than adding them in?

What if every time we added a new activity we abandoned an old one?

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The second of the Bromford Design Principles is abandon activities that don’t add value. I’m going to put my neck on the block and suggest it has been the least successful of the nine principles we introduced. Yesterday certainly reminded me that should be my personal focus in 2020.

Ultimately simplification means making it easier for your people to get things done and for your customers and other partners to work with you.

As the world becomes more complex, simplifying strategy, leadership, decision-making and all of our communication becomes more important than ever. It should be our number one focus – but it certainly isn’t.

Being simple – it’s complex.


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