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What Hurricane Sandy can teach us about user experience design

Thanks to Hurricane Sandy I have had more than a little time on my hands this past week. During that time, I thought about my experience with the utility companies in and around New York City and how badly their customer interactions failed. And there is a huge lesson to be learned here because these companies didn’t understand their relationship with their customers and they couldn’t look past the obvious tasks to see what their customers really needed from them – hope.

When the utility companies designed their Web sites, wrote their call center scripts and created social media strategies the focus was on letting customers accomplish utilitarian tasks like paying bills and solving simple problems. But they provide services that are vital to day-to-day life so they need to understand that this puts them in a different mental and emotional space with their customers. Their services affect lives, lifestyles, personal safety and personal health. These are huge issues people take very personally so their user experience strategies have to be able to transform from the obvious utilitarian tasks to provide something more when there are serious problems.

Interactions with these companies after the storm were so bad because you could never get a straight answer, never get a sense of if progress was being made or get a sense that the companies had any real idea of what was going on in the power restoration process. Every person I talked with understood what the utility companies were up against after the storm. They knew the size of the problem, they were willing to work with them and to have patience as the problem were fixed. But the lack of information leads to frustration with everyone because all we wanted was some information because that information would give us hope. Hope that our lives would get back to something close to normal and we wouldn’t have to worry about how we were going to keeps our homes safe and warm every night to food and light. Without that hope, you started seeing signs like the one in the photo above which was placed on one of my neighbor’s front yards expressing his outrage with the situation.

I can tell that the utility companies didn’t design from the perspective of their customers so they couldn’t understand that their role in our lives is larger and more vital than other companies. They didn’t understand how important simple information becomes in a crisis and so they didn’t have the communication and information sharing in place that would have solved the problem. I have seen that having a strategy where your experiences are led by lack of insight and internal business structures leads to these types of tragic results.

It was also frustrating to me that their social media strategy was so laughably bad.  They completely missed that social media is a channel that could have easily communicated a lot of information to give people some hope.  The best example I have of this failure was that I posted the image shown above to my Instagram account with the caption “In my neighborhood many still don’t have power and @ConEdison communication is nothing short of pathetic”. Click on the link and you can see that Con Edison liked this photo. It this happened with one of my brands I would have had a nervous breakdown that our social media strategy was that dumb and blind.

No matter what business you are in, you have to really understand your customers, understand their needs and be able to look past the obvious tasks to deliver on all of their needs. This means you have to do research, talk to your customers and walk a mile in their shoes so their experience becomes real and not just a theory. I wouldn’t think this type of thinking wouldn’t be optional anymore but the more brands I work with the more I clearly see that isn’t the case.

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Creative Director, Designer, Brand Builder, Speaker, Podcaster, Crazy One. As a designer, I have 20+ years experience creating the strategy, concepts, and designs for award-winning integrated global advertising campaigns, building multiple global Fortune 500 brands and creating innovative digital experiences. As a leader, I have 15+ years transforming agency and client-side teams using a mix of creativity, business strategy, process and political skill to create innovative, world-class work and cultures that change industries and companies. My clients have included American Airlines, W Hotels, Disney, Citi, ExxonMobil, Acura, Old Navy, Nationwide Insurance, Verizon, Subaru and many others. My work has received over 150 international awards, my app designs have been named as one of the World’s 100 Greatest Apps, Apple has featured my work in 9 keynotes, 4 TV commercials and more.

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