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Mark Hurst Talks About Listening

by Mark Hurst, Michael Grossman
19 min read
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Getting companies to care about good experiences by bringing them into the conversation with users.

Mark Hurst is an entrepreneur and writer concerned with the idea of “good experience”—in particular, what enables or detracts from meaningful experiences of creativity, technology, community, and life. Every spring in New York he runs the Gel conference, spotlighting heroes and innovators of good experience in a variety of fields. There are many videos online of past Gel talks. Hurst also writes Good Experience as a blog and email newsletter for tens of thousands of readers. In 1997 Hurst founded Creative Good, a firm devoted to helping business create better experiences for their customers and employees.

UX Magazine contributor Michael Grossman spoke with Mark about his views on creating good experiences, getting companies and executives to care about good experiences, and how UX professionals might need to rethink their approach to advocating for UX. You can listen to the recording (below) or read this transcript.

Michael Grossman: I’m Michael Grossman for UX Magazine. I’m speaking with Mark Hurst. Mark is the creator and host of the Gel Conference. He is the author of the book Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and Email Overload. He’s a blogger. You can see his thoughts at goodexperience.com. He shares fun online games for the iPhone and the Web (also at goodexperience.com), and maintains online job postings for those looking to create good experiences. Mark, thank you for taking the time to talk with us today.
Mark Hurst: Sure thing. Thanks for having me. And you might also throw into the mix the consulting firm I run called Creative Good.
Grossman: Where can people find out about Creative Good?
Hurst: Creativegood.com. It’s actually both a consulting firm. We advise companies on customer experience and do a lot of customer research. And we also run something called The Councils, which is a peer executive network for managers, directors, VPs and above who are working on a customer experience of some sort. And we’ve got about 420 members worldwide and it’s growing.
Grossman: Good, and I think that’s a good lead into to what we want to talk about today, which is to cover some important components of what it takes for user experience professionals to successfully create good experiences. So I wanted to begin with your views on listening, a topic that’s really important to me and should be to anyone designing and delivering products today. Sometimes it’s difficult to sell the idea of, “I want to go out and talk to customers,” if the people in power at the company think they know enough. “I know what my customers think; I don’t need to go and actually talk to the customers.” So this is things I’ve heard from other folks in the field. What would you do to help them to go back to the company and say, maybe that’s not such a great idea?
Hurst: Well, generally the interest level in listening to the users flows from the top of the organization. If the CEO on down is saying things like, “I heard about a new bright shiny object on the golf course, and that’s what we’re doing now, and forget about any kind of user research,” that’s a corporate culture that’s probably not going to embrace a lot of authentic listening or research—almost no matter what the UX professional says. They’re simply not at a position in the organization to change the CEO’s mind on that point. So in those cases I would recommend that the UX professional look for a different job. Just to put it bluntly—I mean, we have to be pragmatic about it.
On the other hand, there are plenty of organizations where there is at least lip service paid towards listening to the customer even if it’s not totally acted out. In those cases the lever here is for the UX professional to ask—either gently or forcefully depending on the situation—ask the person in charge, “Hey, you talk about listening to customers. When’s the last time you saw a customer in person. I mean, like talking, so that you could listen? Since you talk about listening.” And challenge them, or invite them, or however you want to present it. Again, it depends on the culture and the moment and the situation. But bring it up somehow to try to join the lip service with action.
And most of the time executives, if they tell the truth, will reveal that they have never seen a customer. It’s not that they do it once a year or once every two years—they’ve actually never once in their career done it. Because we have a corporate culture in the US (and I think the US is more customer-centric than other countries in our business culture), so even in the US, we say a lot about listening to customers, but executives tend not to really do it. There are things that pretend to be listening-to-customers, but aren’t in reality true listening-to-customers. And that, as I said before, I think is a core mission of UX professionals today. It should be to include the company in this transformation towards becoming actually a more customer-centric organization. But that requires doing other things than what’s often done in the profession today.
Grossman: Yeah, and I think to help, if going through a transformation you need help—and I’ve had help in the past just by if you have someone that is a champion of what you’re trying to do, that helps. Are there some tools, or presentation things, or something you could do to recommend for the user experience professional that’s out there that’s swimming upstream that, even if they can’t the CEO, maybe they can get some other folks around him to help to champion a Listening Lab?
Hurst: Well, for your readers and/or listeners who weren’t at my presentation last week at the UPA, I’ll say something—I’ll repeat something I said there. There are two ways to try and be listened to as a UX or UI professional. One is to convince everyone else in the room that you’re smarter than they are, or more famous, or cooler, or more fashionable, or something like that.
And this is the route (this is one of my provocative things), I think this is a route that the UX profession chooses almost all of the time. They load up professionals with complex frameworks, obscure semi-academic language, and buzzwords. And we teach our professionals all of these tricks of the trade, so to speak, to go into meetings with stakeholders and justify their existence. “I am the expert who will own the user experience. And look at my vast selection of tools and verbal resources that I can throw at you to convince you that yes, you have hired a well-trained professional for the job.” And I guess it works because companies have hired a lot of people who, in a way, are being rewarded for that behavior. I think it’s fine as far as that actually is able to effect some change in the organization.
But I’d like to suggest a different way which some people use—I think not the majority. It’s subtle, and it’s got a lot less ego attached to it and, in the end, it’s much, much more effective in my experience. And this method is to say: I’m not trying to become the owner, the expert owner, of the user experience. I, as the UX professional, am simply a facilitator. I am trying to facilitate a conversation between the organization and its users. And to that end I’m going to use plain, simple English. I’m not going to hide behind complex frameworks or jargon. I’m going to speak the language that stakeholders understand about improving business metrics, and I’m going to invite them to watch the customer in something I call a “Listening Lab” (or you can use whatever term you like), but we’re going to have a session to listen to customers.
I will facilitate conversations with the customer and then I will facilitate conversations within the stakeholders. These stakeholders will be present and they’ll actually see a customer. For some of them, for the first time in their careers, they’ll actually see a customer. And we’re all going to speak a plain, simple language to each other about what we heard, what we observed, and what we heard when we listened to the customer, and how we can make the customers life better by improving our product, and thereby improve the business. That’s a completely different approach from coming in with a nine-point matrix of the whoseywhatsit.
Grossman: And it almost naturally has a… making this whole thing cultural automatically versus, you know, I’ve been at companies where you have your own usability department or user experience department where if it does become a fiefdom type of approach like, “I own the listening channel,” that doesn’t seem to go that well.
Hurst: Well, if you’re in an environment where you need to build a fiefdom in order to survive, it’s good to acknowledge that. And you have to ask yourself, is this how I want to spend the majority of my waking hours in my life, doing this? Is this meaningful enough? Maybe it’s time to look for another job. There are organizations out there that—there aren’t many yet—but there are some out there that live and breathe the kind of alternative method that I just described where the stakeholders… I mean, it’s less that there’s a user experience department that owns this off in the corner, and it’s more that the whole company buys into this.
Years ago, I wrote a column in Good Experience called Usability Professionals Should Disappear—and yes, it was meant to be a little provocative—but it’s essentially the same message I’m saying today, which is that usability is not something that should be owned and jealously guarded. It’s something that should be shared and imbued throughout the organization, and in fact should be an invitation for others outside of the profession to take part in it. And the only way to authentically issue an invitation is if you let go of it first. You know, I can’t give you an invitation to my party if I have it clenched in my fist. And unfortunately I feel like a lot of the time the academic track, and the books, and conferences, and the training programs teach UX professionals how to build a high wall or a high ivory tower around their profession so that nobody else can get in except the elect few.
And that’s why we have thousands of professionals around the country all saying the same thing: “Why don’t stakeholders listen anymore? Why don’t I feel like I’m having an impact?” Well, you put yourself in a fortress, that’s why. So people should come down from the tower and speak in the language that the rest of the company is already speaking in, and try to make human-to-human connections between customers and the executives in the company. All kinds of great things happen at that point. If they don’t—if things don’t start happening right away when you try that—then you’re in the wrong place. Find a better job where the organization will appreciate that more genuine approach.
Grossman: It’s not easy to implement a Listening Lab within a company that, at first, is resistant to one. What can you do to maintain that once you’ve got it implemented, to keep the spirit of what having a Listening Lab is about?
Hurst: At that, if you’ve already gotten started and you’ve run a couple of these, and you’re looking at then how to extend the progress and the success of that initiative, at that point you are ahead of about 99.9% of other organizations and professionals out there. So you’ve jumped from entry to black belt training at this point. There are some tips and tricks in there, which I can’t take credit for. I look at other organizations where people have been fighting this good fight for a few years.
And this is actually where I would point people to Council members who are doing this within companies and they can tell stories about setting up a dashboard of their results—their quarterly results—or maybe another place will have weekly labs and there’s a standing invite. Some companies actually tie executive compensation to metrics within the customer experience. That really gets their attention, when their bonus is tied to this stuff. There’s any number of tools.
But see this, Michael, this is the kind of session that I would like to see at a user experience conference. Not yet the hundredth time we’ve talked about the same tactical methodology, but this much more important set of questions about how do you get the organization involved? How do you continue your success after you’ve done this, and what are some case studies? By the way, why are user experience events always full of user experience professionals? Why aren’t there stakeholders who’ve converted to this mindset and will tell their own case study about what they’re doing? There aren’t more of those going on. This is the worldview that I take when I look at the conferences, books, academic tracks, and training workshops. There’s a much more important set of issues for user experience professionals to address and they’re mostly not being addressed right now and there’s a huge opportunity to dive into that.
Grossman: So on that topic, have you seen the way companies are structured where they’re placing user experience professionals over the last five years or so? I guess where you’re placed in an organization can lead to whether you’re successful or not.
Hurst: Well, I’m not sure how well I can speak to that because I don’t track HR trends or team structure trends—who’s being appointed to which positions. So I can only give a couple of random thoughts. One is that many of the most customer-centric executives that I know of in business today do not have any formal usability or UX training. They don’t have a master’s degree in the thing. They’re not seen at the conferences and the various places that you might look for user experience professionals. And yet, these are seriously customer-centric executives who are listening to customers, making changes based on their feedback, and measuring the results. Everything that UX is supposed to be about, they’re doing.
And I have to say, I don’t think that’s a coincidence that there’s that disconnect. I think that there are people who are just really passionate about customers, and they grow into these roles and suddenly they’re the VP of product. And, unfortunately, what I think happens is when they need some extra bandwidth for more tactical jobs they say, “Okay, let’s go out and hire in an interaction designer and a user experience director,” and that kind of thing. And these people then get plugged into more tactical roles. “Let’s do a touchpoint map,” and “let’s look at these ten different user flows and make sure that the buttons are in the right place in each case.” Those are important tasks, but those are tactical not strategic.
The strategic work is not being done by UX professionals. And, of course, the UX professionals do what they’re asked, and they do good work, and then a few years in they say, “You know what, I really feel like I’m not having a strategic impact on the organization.” That’s how I see it shake out. Again I’ll say I think there’s an opportunity for the UX community to begin to talk about more strategic issues, and spotlight better case studies, and start reaching out to people to learn—to learn really what they need to do to help their respective organizations do this work better, being led by a UX professional rather than the very rare executive who happens to get it on their own.
Grossman: That speaks to things you see within companies that do deliver good experiences. Are there any other common traits that you see within companies that they have in common?
Hurst: The single most important driver for a customer-centric company is to have a CEO who gets it. That’s, by an order of magnitude, the number one most important thing. And so it’s not hard to come across case studies of companies that get it. I write about them, I spotlight them at Gel, and a lot of them are council members. They’re freely available at these companies. People who really want to work in such organization should pursue open positions at those companies.
With that said, there are mammoth organizations out there that have dozens of business units, some of which get it, some of which don’t. And in those cases you want to look for a business unit that’s headed up by somebody who seems to be doing this sort of work well. The funny thing (I think I pointed out at my talk last week) is that the key driver of success in creating a better user experience has nothing to do with the website or the technology. The key driver is political. And you wouldn’t know that from the agenda within the conversation of the community that you see, which tends to be all about the technology and the methods as I’ve said.
But it’s really about the people—user experience is about people, customer experience is about people. I’ve been advocating for customer experience for thirteen years, and the first word in that phrase is “customer.” It’s about the people. And the better you are, the better an organization is, at listening to people and hiring in people who can listen, the better it does.
I’ll give one other pointer. One thing that I always recommend to user experience professionals who are interested in this alternative method that I’m espousing here, I always recommend that they look outside the discipline for material. Look for companies, for speakers, for books, that have nothing to do with the user experience profession, but which seem to have a bent towards listening and empathy and making change on behalf of somebody else.
One such resource I’ve pointed people to for years now is a book called Setting the Table written by a guy named Danny Meyer. He’s (depending on who you ask) one of the, or the top restaurateur in New York City. He owns, I think, eight different restaurants here in New York and they’re consistently rated the highest—the best in New York. And he wrote a book—again, it’s called Setting the Table—about imbuing his organization with a sense of hospitality. And he talks about what hospitality is—meaning how to always want to do the best for the customer—and, most importantly, how he hires people who have that knack for hospitality, and how he manages those people to continue delivering hospitality day after day after day. Because that’s really the business they’re in.
I think if user experience professionals would put down the academic tome for a season and pick up something like Setting the Table, they would learn so much about what they need to do in their careers to help transform their organization. They’d be surprised by what they’d learn.
Grossman: That reminds me a lot of what they tell authors or chefs or people that… when you talked about having the user experience professional go outside of their tool sets, it’s sort of what others in other fields are told to do to make what they do a lot more rich. So you mention Danny Meyer, which I think leads us to the Gel conference. I think he’s spoken at Gel before, correct?
Hurst: Yes, ’06 or ’07, yeah.
Grossman: So what are the things that user experience professionals will get from this year’s Gel? From attending Gel, what would they get that they might not get at other conferences?
Hurst: Well, Gel’s a conference that I’ve run since 2003. The acronym stands for Good Experience Live, and it’s a conference that is about good experience. Not user experience, because that’s freighted with all sorts of professional associations and methodological associations. Gel’s about good experience. And here’s the way I like to describe it to the user experience professional: have you ever been to a usability or a user experience conference where the experience of the conference wasn’t so great? I’m not talking about anybody in particular. Everyone can probably think of their own example.
Isn’t it ironic that, whichever conference that was, a conference that purported to be about user experience was not itself a good experience? What if there was a conference that was so committed to the idea of good experience that is actually made the conference itself a good experience? In fact, what if that was the founding vision of the conference? That’s what Gel is. Gel is a conference that teaches good experience by creating a series of good experiences throughout the conference.
And it’s a subtle design. I don’t really talk about it explicitly at the conference, but it exhibits itself in many different details of the event and it’s so subtle that some people don’t get it until the end of the conference or, in some cases, months later. They say, “Now I understand what Gel is about and it’s… wow! It’s given me so much material to work with in my job.” So what I don’t do at Gel is hold a bunch of workshops on different UX methods. What I do do is create opportunities for people to have direct good experiences from which I invite them to pull the patterns out by themselves. If you take just the superficial look at the agenda you say, “Oh, this sounds fun. This looks interesting.”
I talked to someone yesterday who said, “Yeah, I looked at the agenda and there’s like a scavenger hunt or something? Why would I go to a conference for a scavenger hunt?” I said, “Yes, it sounds like all fun and games, right?” No. I mean, it is fun, and people do have fun there, but the idea is to go and, let’s say, get a tour of Brooklyn Brewery by the brew master himself and then sit down with the brew master and have a beer and cheese pairing of artisanal beers, artisanal cheeses, that the brew master picked out himself as he tours you through the details of each pairing. That’s an experience that you can’t get anywhere else and that’s something meaningful and rich. It’s a learning experience. It’s unique. It’s a good experience.
So after you have that experience as part of your Gel experience, you come away and you say, “Man, that was good. Wow!” And then my invitation is well, what made that good? Well, let’s see, he was personable. He was honest. The guy in charge came through. There was something authentic about it. There were connections to different… and I say, okay, those patterns—how can you apply that to whatever you do in your work? How can you bring in more authenticity, more richness, more connections, more personability? How do you do that? Those are the elements of good experience that I wish user experience professionals would build their career on. Not, “I know this method, I know this method.”
Grossman: Well those methods also usually have a shelf life, whereas what you’re talking about probably will last beyond our lifetime as opposed to the latest style sheet techniques.
Hurst: Listen, there’s nothing wrong with methods. I mean we need to know methods, we need to know about style sheets. But that’s a tactical learning you can pick up in a couple of days or you can read a book on that. It’s learning of some tactical methods. It’s no problem. But yes, if you buy into these more underlying patterns of authenticity and interconnectedness, listening and empathy…
Last year we had one of the best sleight of hand magicians in the world, Jamy Ian Swiss, came to Gel and he spoke and he did, I think, three magic tricks in his talk. But his entire talk was about, as he put it, the most important skill for both magicians and user experience professionals, which is empathy. And some people told me that was the best part of the conference for them because the sleight of hand magician taught them something that they can now use for the rest of their career.
And, by the way, that talk is at Gelvideos.com. It’s free and online, people can watch it right now. But that gives you a sense of what I’m trying to communicate and accomplish with Gel. It’s intensely related to user experience and I frankly wish that the user experience community would pay it a little more attention because we don’t get enough professionals coming out of the woodwork to come to Gel.
Grossman: I’ve attended Gel in the past and one thing I really enjoyed outside of the amazing speakers that you have and the day-one experiences that you are firsthand experiencing. You’d actually get a beer and some cheese as opposed to a PowerPoint about beer and cheese. But this unique blend of people that attend there, that was almost as important as… just to see all the people around me and to get to interact with them and talk to them about how we do all this stuff and it wasn’t just a bunch of the same type of folks that you see at other conferences. Was this organic or was this something that you strove for when putting Gel together?
Hurst: Well, it’s both. I mean, I strive for these beautiful things that happen at the event, but they are, at the same time, organic. Gel is a very bottom-up event. I don’t tell people what the event is about because I don’t presume to tell them what it’s about. It’s about something different for every person. But it is nice to see that diversity of attendees show up. The name of the event is Gel, after all. The idea is we’re taking diverse sources, diverse material, diverse people and we’re putting them together and we’re seeing what comes of it. It’s mostly out of my hands, but usually by the end of the event it really does feel like the group that has been there with us for two days Gels at the end. It’s a really neat experience.
As for how, people ask me sometimes how this very diverse set of people hear about Gel, I don’t really know. I post it online. I don’t really advertise or anything. I think what happens is the right people hear about it and the right people come. It’s not a conference constructed for a certain profession, so you don’t have everybody from the same profession. And it’s also not a conference that offers something easily definable like access to the rich and famous. That’s not something people are coming for and it’s not something that has anything that the press has shown much interest in up to this point.
So the people who are coming are not coming for the wrong reasons. They’re coming for whatever they heard was good about it, which presumably came from word of mouth and from people who’ve been in the past. So it tends to be a really cool crowd of people—really enthusiastic for the event and, as people have told me over the years, there are really no jerks there. I mean, everyone’s really cool.
Grossman: I can attest to that. I really enjoyed and was inspired and learned a lot from going to it in the past. When and where is Gel being held this year?
Hurst: It’s April 29th and 30th and it’s being held in New York as it always is. And we’re in the Times Center again this year, which is the theater in the New York Times building in Midtown.
Grossman: Well I look forward to seeing you there, and thank you so much for taking the time to talk today.
Hurst: Sure thing Michael. Thanks a lot for inviting me.
post authorMark Hurst

Mark Hurst, Mark Hurst is an entrepreneur and writer concerned with the idea of “good experience” - in particular, what enables or detracts from meaningful experiences of creativity, technology, community, and life. Every spring in New York he runs the Gel conference, spotlighting heroes and innovators of good experience in a variety of fields. There are many videos online of past Gel talks. Hurst also writes Good Experience as a blog and email newsletter for tens of thousands of readers. In 1997 Hurst founded Creative Good, a firm devoted to helping business create better experiences for their customers and employees. He runs it with business partner Phil Terry. Hurst has also created the annual Uncle Mark product guide; a list of good games online; an online to do list, and several other harebrained labors of love. A couple of years ago Mark’s site “This Is Broken” became popular, but it got to be so much work that now it’s a purely user-generated Flickr group. His 2007 book Bit Literacy proposed a basic set of skills to overcome information overload. Douglas Rushkoff wrote, “Mark Hurst is the smartest person thinking about ways technology can make our lives easier rather than harder.” Hurst began his Internet career as a graduate researcher at the MIT Media Lab, then worked with Seth Godin at Yoyodyne. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science from MIT and lives in New York City with his wife and son. He’s also on Twitter and Facebook.

post authorMichael Grossman

Michael Grossman,

Michael merged his skills in graphic design and multimedia into a career in User Experience Design after graduating with a B.S. in Jazz in 1989. He has delivered projects for clients including Kenneth Cole, Merrill Lynch, Apple, Time Warner, NFL Properties, AOL, Toshiba and W&R Grace. He has spent the last 20 years designing great experiences. Visit his UX Blog, his website, or follow him on Twitter.


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