Episode 197

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The customer journey, UX, customer experience: buzzwords or actually points of value we can offer clients? I think in the hands of the under-informed and without good data, a process for gathering that data, and a genuine understanding of what the customer journey can tell us, it becomes a matter of hearsay and guesswork.

That isn’t good enough for this week’s guest, so we’re taking the guesswork out of it. I talk with Heidi Trost, owner and CEO of Voice + Code, about how to gather the right data and what to do with it to make that crucial connection between the goals of the customer and the goals of the company.

Heidi Trost has built an agency around those kinds of fixes. Heidi started Voice+Code in 2010 after working at other agencies and being an adjunct professor. She has a passion for helping clients build technology that actually serves their customers and delivers on the experience the customer is seeking. We’re going to dig into all of those topics.

Heidi’s obsession with usability and the user experience began with her award-winning graduate research at Rochester Institute of Technology. Today, her passion is to help businesses measure and optimize the user experience while making the digital realm safe, usable, and accessible.

As a user experience researcher and designer, speaker, and usability expert, Heidi has helped startups and Fortune 500 companies develop digital product strategies that align customer needs with business goals.

What You Will Learn in this Episode:

  • The data and metrics to use in understanding the customer journey
  • The best methodologies for getting input from your clients
  • How to test your assumptions about a customer persona
  • How to set up usability studies
  • How to map out the customer journey
  • Getting realistic about the customer journey
  • What prevents a product or service from achieving a great user experience
  • How to convince clients to invest in research
“Improving user experience is not once and done. The company and product are always evolving. Customers might be changing. So, in response to that, we do multiple usability studies.” – Heidi Trost Click To Tweet “AI will help my agency pinpoint areas of concern so that we can dive deep into those issues, fix them, and then move on to the next thing.” – Heidi Trost Click To Tweet “Good research helps mitigate risk and maximize opportunity.” – Heidi Trost Click To Tweet “It’s not enough to think you understand your clients. You really need to talk to and, even better, observe your clients, to better understand them.” – Heidi Trost Click To Tweet “Agencies and any digital business need to act in the best interest of their clients when it comes to privacy and security.” – Heidi Trost Click To Tweet

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Ways to Contact Heidi Trost:

Speaker 1:

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to Agency Management Institute’s Build A Better Agency podcast. Now on our third year of bringing you insights on how small to mid-size agencies survive and thrive in today’s market. We’ll show you how to grow and scale your business, attract and retain the best talent, make more money, and keep more of what you make. With 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey there, everybody. Drew McLellan here from Agency Management Institute. Welcome back if you are a regular podcast listener and welcome if this is your first episode of Build A Better Agency. Glad to have you with us. In this episode this week, I’ve got a great guest who is going to talk to us about a topic that is very top of mind for most of you today and I’m going to get into that in just a second. But first, a couple quick reminders.

Number one, I want to remind you, again, about the assessment that we have built out, take you about five or six minutes to take. If you want to give yourself a grade and see how you’re doing in five or six key areas of the agency, everything from accounts service to biz dev to owner happiness, go over to agencymanagementinstitute.com/assessment, that’s singular not plural, and take the assessment five or six minutes and then you will immediately get the results on the screen and then, we will also email them to you. But one of the reasons why I am bringing this up on several of the podcast is because we are trying to get as many agencies to go through the assessment as possible because at the end of July, we’re going to walk you through in a webinar, we’re going to walk you through some of the interesting findings in the assessment.

And also, we’ll be able to show you what the averages are in all of the categories so that you can compare your score, so save that email that we send you, you can compare your score to the aggregate whole of the agencies that have participated. And we’ll slice and dice it in several different ways and show you where you fall in the spectrum of agencies. So I think that will be very interesting and insightful, and I want you to be able to take part in that. So please, head over to the assessment and do that.

Second thing I want to remind you is, believe it or not, we’re already thinking about fall and winter workshops. We’ve got some really great ones coming up. So I would love for you to go over to agencymanagementinstitute.com and under the training tab, check out the workshops. If you have an interest in joining one of our live peer groups, remember, there is a workshop pre-requisite for that and one of them is the money matters workshop that’s going to happen on October. It’s going to be down in Orlando, Florida on Disney property, Star Wars will have opened up if that’s an interest to you. But anyway, it’s two days of just talking about money. Everything from why you weren’t making money, the mistakes we make and how to fix those mistakes. The dashboard that you should be looking at every week and every month at a glance, know if your agency is healthy or not. Everything from writing effective proposals to stopping scope creep to taxes to all kinds of other things. So we would love to have you join us, and there’s plenty of other workshops there for your perusal as well so check that out.

So, all right, let’s talk about this week’s episode. When I hang out with agency owners which is pretty much seven days a week, there are certain topics that always come up. Biz dev is always one of them. Right now, one of them is always the challenge of finding and keeping great talent. But one of the other topics that always seems to rise to the top is how are we as an industry and how should I as an agency be dealing with all of the aspects of the digital world whether it comes to usability, whether it comes to accessibility, whether it comes to privacy, how do I deal with all of that and how do I think through that? And as I’m helping clients build digital assets whether that’s an app or a website, what does that look like? What does that customer journey look like and how do I vet that? And, again, even if you’re not doing digital products, the question is often, how do I help my clients understand their customer better?

And so, we have a great guest who’s going to dig in to all of that with me so it’s going to be a really fast paced and interesting conversation. So let me tell you a little bit about our guest. So Heidi Trost is the owner and CEO of Voice+Code, an agency that really focuses on user experience and all of the things that we just talked about. And so, Heidi started Voice+Code in 2010 after working at other agencies, after being an adjunct professor, after getting her master’s degree and she really has a passion around how do we help our clients build technology that actually serves their customers and really does deliver on the experience that the client wants their customer to have.

And so, we’re going to dig into all of those topics. So whether you are a digital shopper or not, I promise, there’s going to be plenty in this episode for you. So, buckle in and let’s start talking. So without further ado, Heidi, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.

Heidi Trost:

Yeah. Thanks for having me.

Drew McLellan:

So before we get into some specifics, I touched on it a little bit in the introduction, but help people understand your background and how you came to have all of this knowledge about the customer journey and we’re going to talk about sort of it in the broad sense and in the digital sense. So just give people a little bit of background so they know how you came to have all of this insight.

Heidi Trost:

Well, I took my master’s thesis doing a usability test project. So I started in graduate school but then I took a course into becoming a designer. I think of myself as a reformed designer. So I did a lot of marketing communications work and then I was working at a shop that built apps when the iPad first came out. So we’re building lots of iPhone and iPad apps, and they never spoke about the user experience and that was something that was just so strange to me that we were creating these digital products and then never talking about the user experience. So when I started my own agency, I made that my focus that we really were understanding what the customers’ wants and needs were and we were building products based on those wants and needs. So I had an interesting path to this specific user experience focus but it did start in graduate school.

Drew McLellan:

I think a lot of agencies are beginning to talk to their clients about customer journey and all of that. So help me understand how do you actually get that data? How do you know that when you’re talking to a client about their customer’s journey or I think it’s equally interesting when I think about it from our own agency’s perspective of what is my client’s customer journey. How does somebody ferret that out?

Heidi Trost:

Well, a lot of times when we first start to work with clients, we realize that they have done no real research into who their customers are or their customers have recently changed. So when we ask them, what are your customers’ goals, motivations, behaviors, that sort of thing, often times they’ll try to answer and then, when we ask where they got that information, they just say, “Well, we just know,” and that’s not good enough. What we tell our clients is that you really need to talk to and, even better, observe your clients to better understand them, observe your customers to better understand them, and that’s one of the biggest focuses that we have at Voice+Code is that first, we observe and then we measure and then we improve. And I think that’s a really critical missing piece that people don’t understand is that actually observing your customers out in the wild using your products, if you don’t have a digital product, observing them in the field and really trying to understand how they go about their day-to-day lives.

Drew McLellan:

So let’s talk about the methodologies around that. So let’s first talk about the talking. So is that focus groups? Is that online surveys? What is the best methodology that you, guys, have found for actually getting input from your customer which I know is different than observing. So we’ll get to that in a second.

Heidi Trost:

Right.

Drew McLellan:

Were you asking them? What’s the best methodology for doing that effectively?

Heidi Trost:

The best way is to speak to them one-on-one. We find that focus groups tend to be… One person tends to dominate the conversation, we don’t get a lot of really good insight out of focus group. So we scheduled one-on-one interviews with the customers.

Drew McLellan:

Okay. And am I doing those face-to-face? Am I doing those on a video chat? Am I doing that over the phone?

Heidi Trost:

Ideally, they’re face-to-face. You tend to establish a better rapport with people when you’re face-to-face. I don’t think this comes as a surprise to anyone. But even as we’re talking, we’re talking virtually-

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Heidi Trost:

… you lose some of that nuance that you would have if you’re face-to-face.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So how many people is enough people because I’m sure the listeners are going, “Face-to-face, one-on-one translates to expensive”?

Heidi Trost:

Yes, and we get a lot of that push back as well.

Drew McLellan:

I’m sure.

Heidi Trost:

So we use the same rule of thumb as when we do our usability study. So we try to establish who are personas are and then, we try to speak to between five and 15 people per persona. So a persona is a proxy for a group of users and they have unique behaviors, goals and motivations.

Drew McLellan:

So if your client isn’t sure who their customers are or what their motivations are, how do they develop the personas? Before you talk with them or do you develop what you think they are, talk to them, and then modify the personas?

Heidi Trost:

We may form some hypothesis as to who their personas are but then we speak to actual customers or representative customers and then we tried better defined or we validate or invalidate those assumptions.

Drew McLellan:

Okay. All right. So that’s the talking side, best practice. So let’s talk about observation. So obviously, as you alluded, there’s a difference if I have a digital product versus on the analog product. So walk us through the methodology you use for both of those. I know most of your clients are in the digital space.

Heidi Trost:

Right. You would actually use the same sort of methodology if you had a physical product. So you would devise a set of tasks scenarios for the user to perform. So what are these mission critical things that people need to be able to accomplish in order for your product to be successful? You probably have between three to five tasks scenarios per usability session.

Drew McLellan:

So, for example, I don’t remember who makes them now, but if I’m testing the user experience with a slinky, I’m going to say to them, for example, “Make it walk down the stairs,” right?

Heidi Trost:

Exactly. Yup.

Drew McLellan:

Okay.

Heidi Trost:

Yup.

Drew McLellan:

And on the digital side, I’m going to observe them using either the app or the website or whatever that is in some research setting or how do you recommend me do that?

Heidi Trost:

So with interviews, it’s better to do this in person. Obviously, that’s not always possible.

Drew McLellan:

Sure.

Heidi Trost:

So you can set up a WebEx, a Zoom meeting, have them share their screen with you, you can also have a camera set up so that you could see their facial expressions while you’re doing the usability study. But if you’re in a quote, unquote lab setting, we do a lot of mobile usability studies too and we bring the lab to the user. In those cases, you sit next to the user, the participant, and you observe them. You’re really not saying that much, you’re just asking them to perform the task and I’m shUtting up after that and then seeing what problems they encounter. And honestly, you get so much more insight just watching them struggle to use your products than you would in any other scenario.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. I’m sure your client sometimes it’s going to be frustrating because they think that it’s super easy, right? Of course, everyone knows what to click over here and then click over there and do whatever and then it turns out that it is neither intuitive or easy.

Heidi Trost:

Right. And what I tell my clients, a lot of them are technology-driven with a focus on emerging technologies, a lot of them are designers and you have to remember, if you’re in this group, if you’re a designer and you’re a developer, you are in the top 10%, the top 1% compared to people in the rest of the world in terms of your technology prowess. So-

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Heidi Trost:

… when you’re making these decisions, these user-experience decisions, you’re not taking into account the fact that most people don’t have the technology knowledge that you have.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. I’ve often heard people say that they have their mom or their grandma look at the website and do the ad hoc at the kitchen table, go find this or whatever-

Heidi Trost:

Right.

Drew McLellan:

… because, obviously, they’re not as tech savvy. I think you’re right. I think we have bias. I think agency people are naturally or certainly, your clients in the tech space are naturally more comfortable and intuitively know where to go or what to do where the end users are probably not in that subset.

Heidi Trost:

Right. And if you think about it, we’re asking technology to do a lot of things that we never asked it to do before. So when you’re taking offline activities and making them online, again, you make a lot of assumptions about how the end user operates, what their mental model is, what sort of expectations that they have. So it’s like technology evolves and we ask it to do more and more things, we really need to involve the end user in that process.

Drew McLellan:

All right. So two questions. So I’ve done some hypothesis testing, as you said, in terms of watching someone interact with my product or service in some way, again, whether it’s analog or it’s digital. And now, I’ve got my personas, I’ve either validated that they’re on or off, and now I’ve got to map out this customer journey. How do you begin to do that? What’s the thought process? Because I’m sure it’s a measure twice, cut once thing where it’s all about sort of the careful planning on the front end. So what does that look like?

Heidi Trost:

Well, first, let me say that these are living documents, there are artifacts that your team creates that will change over time as you learn more and more about your customer. So they’re not set in stone, they will change and that’s totally fine. So with every piece of research, every research project that we start, we have to have research questions, right? Because we could just continue researching until the end of time and-

Drew McLellan:

Sure.

Heidi Trost:

… not have enough time. So depending on what your research goals are will depend on what research artifacts we end up building. A lot of times those are personas, a lot of times those are scenarios, reasons people would use the product and then those are expanded into user or customer journeys. The customer journey, at least how Voice+Code approaches it, is that we have an end goal for the user and then we have an end goal for the company. And if we’ve done our research and planning correctly, those, at some point align, right? They, at some point, converge. Otherwise, the long-term viability of the product is in jeopardy if they don’t align.

Drew McLellan:

That seems to me, on a one hand, like duh, they should align. But on the other hand, I’ll bet you come into situations over and over and over again where the user experience and that client or customer goals do not align.

Heidi Trost:

Absolutely. Yeah. So the digital experience is pushing ads or pop ups or asking the user to do things that they don’t want to do, give out information that they don’t want to give out, or not prepping the user to give out that information. They haven’t explained why this is necessary so people are reluctant to give that information out. So those are just a few examples of when goals don’t align. So they can be as specific as that or they could be, organizationally, they don’t align with what the user wants to do.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Heidi Trost:

So assuming that those goals converge, we visually map out so using a variety of infographics as well as text, think about what the user is doing at that point in time, which touchpoint is associated with that, how does touchpoints relate to one another. Then we place a user quote typically, a customer quote so it’s either something verbatim that we thought was really interesting or it’s a combination of things that represent like holistically what the customer is experiencing at that point in time and then, we have strategic conditions on how to move forward.

So based on this knowledge, based on what the customer is feeling at this particular moment in time, based on what they’re doing, here are our recommendations for moving forward and we break each piece down into segments as you can probably imagine visually and map out that progression from start to finish. So what was even their motivation to solve this problem in the first place? How did they hear about your product or service and then the logical progression based on the research not guessing of how they experience the product.

Drew McLellan:

So as you’re mapping this out, are there common misperceptions that clients have that when you actually map all of these out and then it’s based on research and real data that time and time again you have to sort of course correct your clients around, “Nope. That’s not how that actually works.” Do you see sort of common either misperceptions or common hopes that you have to dash?

Heidi Trost:

Yes. One of the most common things that I see happening is that clients want a lot of the experience to happen online, they want their customer to engage in social media, they want them to sign up for email newsletters and it’s just not happening. People don’t want to follow you on social media, people don’t want to sign up for yet another email newsletter that is useless and just clogs their inbox and doesn’t have any insightful information for them. And a lot of things are actually happening offline and our clients aren’t accounting for that. So I would say, yeah, the biggest issue is that our clients want their customers to be doing things online when in reality, they’re happening offline.

Drew McLellan:

Well, and I think the other thing I heard you just say was that clients want a level of engagement and loyalty and connection maybe earlier than it’s reasonable to expect.

Heidi Trost:

Yes. Absolutely. Yeah, so that piggybacks on that. They want to establish a relationship very early on in the customer journey that just will never happen. It’s not natural, it doesn’t happen in offline experiences when you have humans talking to other humans so you can’t possibly expect it to happen in the digital space.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. It’s funny. I think clients are very much, I want to walk into a bar and walk up to an attractive person at the bar and say, “Hey, let’s get married.”

Heidi Trost:

Exactly.

Drew McLellan:

And the person at the bar is like, “I don’t even know you so back off,” right?

Heidi Trost:

That is such a great example. I hope you let me steal that when I talk to clients.

Drew McLellan:

It’s all yours. So how do you help them understand that? Again, is that a data point? Is that just your experience? How do you help them sort of see the customer journey in a more realistic light?

Heidi Trost:

I think the personas are the first step in that. So personas have a photo, they have a real name, a first and a last name, we outline what their goals, motivations and behaviors are. So that helps our customers really see and visualize who these people are.

Drew McLellan:

Sure.

Heidi Trost:

In the customer journeys, the quotes are really helpful in putting yourself into the customer’s shoes. And often times, we’ll involve our clients in the actual research process by having them sit in on some of the interviews or be on the call or, at the very least, listening to the recordings of the interviews of these focus studies and that really help when they actually hear someone say that. It’s a lot easier to believe.

Drew McLellan:

Right. I’m sure it’s more compelling and it’s not just you telling them something but it’s coming right from the horse’s mouth as it were.

Heidi Trost:

Exactly. Yeah, and we’ve had challenges with clients before where they pay for this research to be conducted and then they don’t implement the changes. So one of the things that we decided to do at Voice+Code is really force our clients to be a part of the process and part of that process is talking to or listening in on these conversations.

Drew McLellan:

I’m thinking about from a client care point of view, and I have to think that they hear things on occasion that hurt, that cut them to the quick, that are disappointing. So how do you, as an agency, how do you not only intellectually help them see the truth but how do you also help them transition from what they believe to the truth?

Heidi Trost:

That’s a really interesting question and often I have to deliver bad news and I don’t like having to do that. But what I try to do is be as persuasive as possible using whatever methods I can, whether that’s visuals, whether that’s recordings, whether that’s third-party research to back up what I’m saying or what we found in the usability studies, but primarily, I try to reiterate the goals, the business goals that we set forth at the beginning of the project and say, “Here is what you have to do to achieve those business goals and here is what has to change in order for that to happen,” and we use a framework called goal signals metrics.

So the goals are, why did you start this project in the first place? What does the user need to accomplish in order for this product to be successful? Signals are what will show us that we’re making progress towards those goals and then metrics are how you actually measure those signals. So I think when we break it down like that, clients start to think a little bit about, “Okay, what do I really want to achieve this goal? Okay, this is what I have to