Q&A with Tim Loo, Director of Strategy at Foolproof

MORNING TIM. SO... HOW DID YOU GET HERE?

Well, I’ll give you the long story in short form. At high school I was good at maths. But getting to the end of high school, you know, like most people I had no fucking idea what I wanted to do. But I got told about this scholarship to university to become an actuary. It was $10k a year, tax free, to go to uni. Imagine getting paid to go and study! (laughs)

Anyways, so I did that, got out, took a job as an actuary and for the first 3 months I was like “Awesome” – you know, like any job, it’s kind of novel. Going out for lunch at nice places, and all that. But at 6 months, I was like… Fuck this. (laughs) I didn’t enjoy it. Anyway this was back in 93. I was working at an Australian life insurance company and they’d just taken their first order of two PCs for the office. But, no one knew how to use the things so they asked if I would. So I became the spreadsheet guy, fiddling with stuff. They asked me if I’d have a go at building some software to do some statistical modelling or something. I said “yes” and tried. That was the first time I realised I had some natural ability for design.

Anyway, fast forward a decade and the internet was on the rise and pretty much through chance I ended up in the UK working as an e-consultant. I didn’t know what it meant but it sounded great (laughs). I was working for this company and they asked me to become the marketing director and I said, “yeah” – being kind of a bit foolhardy, and brave I guess. Most likely, they didn’t really know more than I did (laughs). They asked me to create a website, so I did. And I realised that I’d built a terrible site. There was no getting around it – I owned the numbers. I dug into UX a bit to try and fix the site. Once we’d applied it we saw a ridiculous, like, 300% increase in conversion. And that was the lightbulb.

I decided to go for this job at Foolproof. It was a startup and I retrained as a UX researcher – doing focus groups, analytics, information architecture, a bit of interaction design. This was between 2004 and 2007, when many companies started to realise they’d built really shit websites because they’d gotten their marketing agencies to build them. So in those years of Foolproof, it was all about fixing stuff.

Then fast forward to 2010 and everything had been optimized quite hard. Companies had really cranked that handle. But so had our understanding of digital and what our discipline was. Enter true user experience. According to Wikipedia, user experience is how someone feels about a product or service. Companies typically operate in silos but people don’t see you as a silo, they only see the touchpoints – things like the ads, the customer service. And that’s the user experience of your company. But no one had sat down and written what an experience strategy should be. So myself and one of the founders of Foolproof did it:

“Experience strategy is a long term plan to align customer touchpoints to the company’s business strategy and its brand position.”

Essentially it involves having a vision, a roadmap and then a set of KPIs – those are the fundamentals. It’s not a separate thing to business strategy, but rather a subset of it, and it helps you answer questions like: which markets should we invest in? How do you make money? How does the brand feel?

We see experience design as being something different to the stuff McKinsey and those kinds of management consultancies do. We’re always trying to show businesses what customers see and feel in the moment, and how they will act in the future. It’s really complicated, but also really simple. There’s often a gap between the customer experience and the customer’s expectations. It can be a vicious circle if you don’t deliver on expectation, or it can be a virtuous circle if you manage to match it up. This is a favourite example of mine:

 

WHEN COMPANIES COME TO YOU WITH A JOB, DO THEY ACCEPT WHAT YOU'RE SAYING NEEDS TO BE DONE OR, LIKE US, DO YOU OFTEN HAVE TO FIGHT AND EDUCATE THEM IN ORDER TO DO THE BEST/RIGHT THING?

Look, yeah we’re in the same boat on that one a lot of the time. At our best we do work with CEOs in order to make change that will filter down through an organisation. We aim as high as possible. But we’re not talking to CEOs/Boards, every week. However, all the time I tell my clients – the CMO or Head of Digital or whoever it is – “can I speak to your mum or dad?” It’s so important that leadership gets onboard and starts to talk about all this stuff – about customer-centricity and improving the experience and closing the gap between expectations and reality.

Customer experience is about culture, it’s an evolving thing, never fully fixed. What’s right now the right play for changing their business may not be the right thing for the business in, to be honest, a worryingly short amount of time given the rate of change we’re seeing happen in most markets. So by teaching them to fish you make it easier for them to pivot when they need to pivot even after you’ve gone. I love being clever as I’m sure lots of you guys do if you’re strategists but honestly, if nothing gets done, it’s fucking boring. It’s no good consulting if it doesn’t work.

Being a strategist, to me, is not about being right. It’s about creating stuff that is persuasive enough to get used and creates change. Even if you’re right, it’s no good if only you know about it.

 

DO YOU CONSIDER YOURSELF A SPECIALIST OR A GENERALIST, AND WHY?

Generalist. Last year I remember there was a project and we were short on resource so I had to create a sitemap, and I thought, “Fuck this.” It’s not my job anymore. The kind of strategy I do goes across business needs and silos to try and create organisational change.

My thing is all about building a team to get the work done. Usually, for a development project, you have a team that consists of a project manager, a strategist, a researcher, a designer and a developer. Well, what team members do you think we need for an experience strategy project? (pauses) It’s ideally the exact same team, because they allow you to actually make something tangible!

 

GOT ANY SECRET TIPS FOR HOW YOU CREATE PERSUASIVE STUFF TO ENGAGE CEOs/BOARDS?

What I’ve learned is that a prototype is always better than a PowerPoint, since you can’t have too much interpretation to the work. A lot of what we do makes strategy simple – something people can understand and touch. The thing is that everything we build, it’s not like Christmas where you can just return it; it’s a living thing. So if you can create something that a CEO can put on their phone and show others and get excited about, that’s great!

We try to turn strategy into something that clients can feel or touch. Sometimes it’s even just a video that shows how disjointed their customer experience is. Sometimes its an inspiring video about what their experience could look like in the future. You’ve got to know when to shame and when to inspire, but both are powerful.

 

I AM AN EXPERIENCE STRATEGIST ACTUALLY AT AN AGENCY, BUT I OFTEN WONDER WHERE DOES MY JOB END AND THE UX DESIGNER'S BEGIN? THERE'S OVERLAP. WHAT DO YOU SEE AS THE DELINEATION? 

Really good question. I’ve worked with some designers that are great strategists. But I’ve also worked with some strategists that are great visual thinkers. They’re not always both. Multidisciplinary thinking is great but how I see it is through the outcomes that you are responsible for (not deliverables). It’s often about what we are squared up against on the project or with the client.

I know my role is often to convince senior people of things, to boil down complex stuff to one chart they can remember and use. It’s OK to be a designer and like designing things and not be a strategist. Lots of UX people love detail. It’s amazing how specific and down to the detail they will get. But a strategist synthesizes it, boils it down to something clear and directional. Most CEOs don’t have a handle on complex customer journey maps with layers and layers of detail.

Another thing I’d say about your role as a strategist is in providing clients with a predictive model of the future. Confidence that doing X will lead to Y. Numbers are important in this. Financial models that show as a result of doing something specific, customers will stay longer or more customers will come. I’m not an expert on that but I pursue an interest in it. You’ve got a trickier job than some other kinds of strategists because it is an emerging practice still and changing all the time. But know what you’re excited by and it should help. I never studied strategy at all, I’m just really interested in transforming companies. That’s what excites me.

 

DO YOU SEE UX AND STRATEGY BECOMING THE SAME THING OVER TIME?

Dunno. You’ll always get specialists. Marketing vs business vs whatever. But under the hood I expect there will be less of a gap between the job of an experience strategist and their knowledge vs other kinds of strategists. I used to be quite defensive about it, but now I’m more like there’s enough work for everyone.

 

WHAT IS THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE IN DEVELOPING NEW PRODUCTS AND SERVICES?

I think it comes down to trying to humanise the need for that product or service. For example, most companies will have dozens of personas they’re trying to talk with, and what I’ve found is that if you boil it down to 5 to 7 personas, it’s much more useful to deal with. And then when you develop those personas, you bake in the need for that product or service as part of their profile.

When developing personas, it’s more about behavioural segments, not so much how much money they have. So, to get it right, you need to do observation research, not just focus groups. Most of what this involves is getting people to change their habits, and getting the organisation to provide a solution that facilitates that.

 

WHEN YOU TALK ABOUT SEGMENTS - WHAT'S THE BEST MODEL? 

I work a lot in B2B. Global companies like Shell, Maersk, Eli Lilly, and so on. And what you learn from doing segmentations in B2B businesses like those is that those people who are making decisions and those that are doing the bulk of the day to day work are completely different. A guy who manages a fleet of trucks is not the same as the guy who drives the truck 200 miles.

You can’t always build segmentations for the high user. We design personas for where the value is. Again it’s about making something simple and usable for the organisation. 50 personas aren’t going to be useful. But neither is 1 that’s just focused on the guy making the decisions. So yeah, it’s all about segmenting by where the value is in the whole process.

 

FOR A YOUNG STRATEGIST, IS IT BETTER TO DEVELOP SKILLS THROUGH A MORE TRADITIONAL AGENCY OR DO YOU RECOMMEND OTHER TYPES OF THINGS, LIKE A CRASH COURSE?

Agency life is now more rewarding than consultancies, I think. You might have more opportunities to learn in a small agency. Now, the big ones usually tend to do things due to access – sometimes I see big consultancies having access to the CEO and I never know what they talk about when they walk in the door with them. But I know it must be awesome.

I’ve worked client side before, and client side usually helps you understand how you make things happen in the organisation. Things like stakeholder management, the political side of it. Those types of skills are equally important.

 

YOU'VE SORT OF TALKED ABOUT HUMANIZING THINGS - HOW IMPORTANT IS EMPATHY IN THE ROLE OF AN EXPERIENCE STRATEGIST?

Very. Having a model to understand customers is important, but there’s a difference between knowing about it and caring about it. If you have any sense of how customers feel about something, it’s the path to caring about changing it.

Data is great, don’t get me wrong. But by showing your clients real footage of customers, or things they said, or just any of that real stuff gets them pissed off (in a good way) about their UX because they are forced to see it through their customers eyes. Something that isn’t always pretty. Empathy is great. Of course you will need to do research with people, especially when you’re getting into the specific frustrations of truck drivers on 200 mile trips trying to use a fuel card, but yes, it’s important.

Most companies have loads of resources they can use, and strategy is also about effective resource allocation. For that to happen, you need either to provide a good business case through numbers, or to rely on sponsorships where someone says “I don’t care about the numbers, we’re doing it”. That requires balls. And empathy.

 

CAN YOU THINK OF A REALLY GOOD EXAMPLE OF A B2C EXPERIENCE? 

I like Amazon, clearly all things have been thought about. Their business cases have a 7 year time horizon, which I think is amazing. I like John Lewis, they realised that the way to sell you something is not through the hard sell itself, it’s through service. The way I was made to feel about it makes me want to come back.

Another one – Disney World. Fucking magic. I mean their experience is next level. The magic band, an NFC wristband on your wrist that gives you access to your hotel room, acts as your ticket to the park, allows you to pay for stuff, and so on. You have professional photographers walking around the park taking photos of you and the kids (beats a selfie any day), and then they scan your wristband and the photos are instantly sent to your phone. It feels really magical, and what makes it work is that it’s invisible. But the true genius of it all, and why I say it’s next level, is that they have removed a key barrier in order to make it all work. To the customer the whole experience is flawless and effortless, and it’s all because Disney have created a park with Wi-Fi coverage that spans an area the size of Manhattan. The wristband and the app – that’s all connected and allows all this magic to happen. It couldn’t work without Wi-Fi because tourists don’t want to pay for data abroad. So what does Disney do? Set up probably one of the largest Wi-Fi areas in the world. Amazing.

 

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