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Gerry McGovern ‘The repositioning of trust in society’

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July 31, 2018
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Completed Episodes
July 31, 2018

Gerry McGovern ‘The repositioning of trust in society’

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Episode Transcript

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GERRY SCULLION: Hello and welcome to another episode of This is HCD. My name is Gerry Scullion and I’m a human centred design practitioner based in Dublin, Ireland. In this episode, we caught up with Gerry McGovern, one of the most well known and loved customer experience advocates. Gerry has developed a number of fantastic models over the years such as Top Tasks and also curates and creates one of the best weekly experience design newsletters on the internet. I’ll add links to the show notes for both of those.

Gerry’s been described by the Irish Times as ‘one of the five visionaries who has had a major impact on the development of the web’. He’s a fantastic speaker and by the time this episode gets released we’ll have completed three of the four dates as close and keynote speaker on Jeffrey Zeldman’s An Event Apart conferences in the US.

Gerry has written six books, one of which came across my desk a number of years ago by Gerry Gaffney in Melbourne. The three Gerry’s all Irish and all doing something pretty similar. So, going back to this episode, we discussed trust and we cover off what is trust to Gerry; the role of trust in society and in relation to the exchanges between customers and organisations. We speak about how customers have evolved at an exponential rate that exceeds that of organisations and now organisations are playing catch up.

This is a big conversation and is jammed packed with information. It was quite bizarre that we actually caught up only a few miles from where I grew up in a hotel lobby. So if you hear the jingle jangle of glasses or the distant sound of Van Halen music in the background, that should explain it.

So anyway, let’s jump straight in.

GERRY SCULLION: Gerry McGovern, a very warm welcome to the This is HCD podcast.

GERRY MCGOVERN: Thanks very much Gerry.

GERRY SCULLION: So today we’re going talk a little bit about you, which is great, because you’re here. But how would you describe yourself in terms of being a practitioner?

GERRY MCGOVERN: Yeah I suppose what somebody described me recently as almost an extreme champion of the customer.

GERRY SCULLION: That’s better. I heard a customer centric guru but an extreme champion is probably…

GERRY MCGOVERN: And I’m not so sure if they were being positive or negative when they said it (laughs). They were introducing me to a bunch of other managers in the building and so you know.

GERRY SCULLION: For anyone who doesn’t or hasn’t signed up for Gerry’s newsletter, I’m going to put a link in the show notes to sign up. It’s one of the best resources for customer centricity on the internet. And I’m not just saying that because you’re sitting opposite me but I’ve been a long time reader.

Gerry, when I was researching for this episode I was really intrigued by your background. I know you’ve worked as a rock journalist for Hot Press which really spiked my interest and you’ve been involved in the early stages of the web and I know the Irish Times voted you one of the top five influencers for the web. We could speak a little bit more about your business with Nua which is another interesting thing. I told you, I’ve done my research. All amazing experiences, I’m sure, but I’m keen to learn how you got where you are today.

GERRY MCGOVERN: I was a freelance journalist back in the early ’90s so in other words I was starving and I was kind of looking for something to really focus on or kind of to, I remember as a child I used to sneak down at night and watch the westerns and I’d see the wagons going out West and I was so envious because I thought I’ll never get a chance to go out west. There is no west left.

GERRY SCULLION: When you’re from Longford.

GERRY MCGOVERN: Yeah maybe the west of Ireland but I kind of made myself a promise I said if you ever see those wagons going out west you’ve got to get on them and the first time I came across the web it was definitely the NCSA Mosaic because I remember soon after a couple of people I knew there was a big conversation about the Netscape was released. It was very early and the first time I saw it I thought this is amazing, you know I thought this is the wagons going out west you know and I thought this is something that you can really do something with and be part of and so I’d found in a way a purpose to be useful.


GERRY MCGOVERN: You know and so one way or another from about ’93, ’94 I remember I’d interviewed a government minister, a director or somebody working in a department, he was called a National Software director at that stage, it’s no longer around and I wrote back to him and I had his address and his phone number and I wrote to him or rang him and I said ‘you should really do something about this thing called the internet’. And he actually got back to me and said ‘well why don’t you do a report?’ So that was…

GERRY SCULLION: That was the start.

GERRY MCGOVERN: That was the start. That was about ’94 or so and that report was launched in the beginning of ’96. It was called ‘Ireland; The Digital Age, the Internet’. So that allowed me to do loads of research and really get to talk to people and from that we founded Nua; there was three of us, Niall O’Sullivan and Anton O Lachtnain were the other two and that’s how it kind of got going.

GERRY SCULLION: One of the early adopters of the internet really in Ireland.

GERRY MCGOVERN: Yeah I mean I remember myself and Niall taking two phone directories or the Yellow Pages or the Golden Pages or whatever it was and we sat down you know you take A-M and I’ll take M-Z and we rang every business we could find and 97% had never even heard of xxx05.22 and the other 2-3% had absolutely no interest. So we rang I think every business in Ireland and we didn’t get a single piece of business out of it. So it was hard days in ’95, ’96, ’97 to try and get xxx05.38 in Dublin.

GERRY SCULLION: And I guess you’ve got to follow that thread of like zero adoption through to like where we’re currently at globally. I know you work globally with organisations who have got miles appetites for the internet and you’re kind of seeing that through at the moment, you’re working with those clients.

GERRY MCGOVERN: All sorts, you know it’s like you go to certain countries and you think they’re super advanced but you’ll find sectors or elements that are not advanced at all. So it’s all, the future, the past, the present is everywhere at the same time and then you get to certain areas where in a way you almost make yourself redundant in that organisations totally get it or to bring in teams in-house. So things are constantly changing or shifting in relation to how do you still deliver value and offer something that people still want to pay for.

GERRY SCULLION: Absolutely which brings us into the next segue in the conversation which is the book which I read a couple of years ago maybe two years ago was it when ‘Transform’ came out?


GERRY SCULLION: And I’ve actually bought this book a couple of times, I was speaking to you before we started.

GERRY MCGOVERN: Thank you very much.

GERRY SCULLION: It’s called ‘Transform: A Rebel’s Guide to Digital Transformation’. Now my question for you is why digital and not just transformation?


GERRY SCULLION: And why even transformation and not continuous improvement.

GERRY MCGOVERN: I suppose we’re always somehow trying to get a handle in some sort of say to try and describe things and as soon as you describe things in a way it’s redundant, you know? And I suppose maybe it’s a basic attempt to say we need to change because the world is changing like I say in the book customers are changing, organisations are not or if you go back 40 or 50 years ago, organisations were the genuine innovators and they were doing things that customers were going ‘wow! That’s amazing’. But now if you look at a typical person, they’ve got better tools than most employers and most companies. They’ve got access to you know if they want to set up a slack account or if they want to set up a high rise account or if they want to talk to their family with Skype or whatever. So they’ve got tools of communication and organisation that are often significantly better than the in-house crap tools that people have.

So you’ve got this anomaly whereas if you look back five or six centuries, what was the purpose of an organisation? To be more sophisticated than the mob you know of people out in the street. But now the people out in the street are often more coherently structured and more able to rapidly adapt to change than the big organisations.

So organisations are in this strange moment of when most of them are actually way behind the times and the customers are racing ahead. So it’s a kind of saying that you know it’s the rebel’s guide; how do you change this organisation, most of which don’t want to change?

GERRY SCULLION: Yeah absolutely and there’s two points in there; one you speak a little bit about the rebel and what I’m keen to drill into a little bit more is who is the rebel typically in the organisation? And what kind of problems are they currently having that you’ve found?

GERRY MCGOVERN: Well the rebel is the person who’s saying we’ve got to organise around the customer, we’ve got to make this simpler, we’ve got to make this easier because if we don’t make it simpler and easier people won’t buy it, people won’t use it. And that’s a rebellious act and a huge number of people over the years I’ve noticed who have done that get in trouble in their organisation because they’re going back to the developers or the managers saying ‘no, no it’s not ready to release. It’s, maybe it’s released but it’s not right… We still need to make it better’ etc., ‘no we need to re-write that. No that design is not simple enough. No that’s not working; you need to change that process’. And essentially the organisation is saying ‘hello?’ you know, ‘stop, this is costing more, you’re really annoying’.

GERRY SCULLION: Yeah and the good people tend to leave at that point.

GERRY MCGOVERN: Well they leave or they get fired.


GERRY MCGOVERN: I mean I’ve seen so many environments where the people who are saving the bloody organisation get fired or else they hit a ceiling and they end up leaving in true frustration or whatever.

So you get no thanks for a lot of this work because the organisation wants to believe the easy myths of you know it’s still powerful, it still can do whatever it wants, you know it can create crap products and then do beautiful marketing.

GERRY SCULLION: Yeah absolutely. And with the bit that we’re talking about there, the ux-ers and the service designers creating value, there’s a bit in your book where you speak about the customer has transformed, the customer is different and they’ve become more empowered through the development of the internet and they’ve got knowledge and they’ve got information at their fingertips but organisations are still lagging behind.

So one of the methodologies that you’ve created is called Top Tasks which has been around for…

GERRY MCGOVERN: 15 years now.

GERRY SCULLION: 15 years! I was going to say seven or eight years. But like tell us a little bit more about Top Tasks and how that helps organisations close the gap between the existing customer sort of baseline and where organisations are at.

GERRY MCGOVERN: Most organisations have become so tribal, so inner looking that they don’t really know their customers or you know we were talking to it earlier, we were saying ‘oh we can’t talk to our customers, we’ve got relationship managers who…’, they’re not even allowed to talk to their customers so less and less people within the organisation have had any interaction with their customers so they build up these myths of…

GERRY SCULLION: Assumptions.

GERRY MCGOVERN: Assumptions or sometimes I know it can be good but a lot of times I find it’s bad personas they invent, the fictional customers that they think etc.

So the Top Task method is specifically designed for you to actually discover what really your customers want, what they need but equally what they don’t need, what they don’t want. So it’s a kind of to give you a map or a league table of importance; here’s the critical stuff that they really want and here’s the stuff that they don’t want. So the Top Tasks are what I call the ‘tiny tasks’ and then what we often do is we do a similar, so we developed a task environment; here’s all the stuff in choosing university and dealing with your health and buying a car whether it’s for a Toyota or whatever. And then we give the same set of tasks to the organisation staff and we say ‘we’ll vote on these as well and see what you think your customers want’ and then we can statistically analyse the two votes and say ‘listen there’s a huge gap between what you think your customers want and what customers actually want’. So it’s a basic statistical method of creating a league table of customer hierarchy of importance, customer needs or tasks, whatever you want to call them, services tasks; the stuff people want to do.

GERRY SCULLION: Yeah so it’s kind of like the voice of the business, voice of the customer and you’re trying to see the dissonance between the two.

GERRY MCGOVERN: The dissonance between the two and the clarity of here’s let’s say in an environment there might be a 100 tasks that would define dealing with your health so prognosis, diagnosis, where to go for help, stuff you need to do. So let’s say there was 100 tasks, this is a pattern that we’ve seen happen in 400 or 500 organisations, 3,000/4,000 people voting and 28/30 languages etc. The top five tasks will get as much of the vote as the bottom 50. So you get this absolute clarity, clarity of here’s the stuff that truly matters and here’s the stuff that doesn’t matter. And in essence the top tasks is a management model which says well if these are the top five services, this is the stuff you need to excel at. If you don’t get these five services right, you’re on rocky foundations. Whereas what most organisations are doing, they’re actually focusing on what’s at the bottom of the list.

GERRY SCULLION: The long tails.

GERRY MCGOVERN: The long tail and the long tail is a good idea when the top tasks are working but if the top tasks are crap, like if you’re trying to make book a meeting room really well for a hotel when book a bedroom sucks, you know you’re not going to get very far. So you’ve got to make sure first and foremost book a bedroom works exceptionally well, then focus on book a meeting room. But most organisations I’m dealing with they’re focusing on book a meeting room and they’ll say ‘oh there is a book a bedroom, yeah we haven’t touched it in five years’. Well, recipe for disaster.

GERRY SCULLION: Absolutely and I know we’re speaking a little bit about the disconnect between the organisation and the customer and that’s led to the breakdown of the trust which is really what this episode is about and it’s about the collapsing of trust in the customers globally. What I’m keen to hear is the top tasks methodology is one way of surfacing that to the senior executives and the board but what can designers do typically to help bring that conversation up?

GERRY MCGOVERN: Yeah of course there’s the challenge that I’m sure you face that none of us live in an isolated world. So if you’re exploiting your customer, particularly your current customers with overcharging, so most models in financial or whatever, the longer you stay with the organisation, the more they charge you. So how do you create a great customer experience when you’re screwing your customers? You know so we hit these barriers that you can’t design around so as we find if we truly want to solve these problems the whole of the organisation behaviours which then we say well we can’t do that so how do we work within the limited environment?
So we do the best we can but if you’re deliberately trying to make pricing opaque because you know if you made it transparent people would then say ‘well you’re charging me twice as much as you’re charging a new customer’. So in many organisations unfortunately they want pricing to be opaque because if they made it transparent and clear, if they simplified the actual renewal process, people would say they’re getting screwed. So customers are much more aware of that because they can go to comparative websites.

You go back 20 or 30 years ago, you’re renewing your car insurance or whatever, and of course it’s all designed that way, you know you get out and it looks like oh I’m getting a 60% no claim bonus and it looks brilliant. Oh, they’re treating me really well! And I was with one car insurer either AXA or whatever, I was with them for 10 years and I was so busy I was travelling etc. and then when I finally checked they were charging me twice as much as I could get elsewhere. But I felt I was getting a good deal because they designed it, they said ‘oh, you’re stupid, you’re not going to check. So we’re going to screw you’. So how do you design around that? And I think it’s very difficult to do that so I think then you’ve got Slack, an organisation at Slack that says ‘oh, you’ve got 50 people who have signed up for the payment model and five of them are not using the service, we’re sending you a discount’.


GERRY MCGOVERN: You know then the SAS company’s gone ‘you can’t do that. That’s how we make our profit by the people who don’t use the system’. You know because their business model is I’m screwing you whereas it’s a kind of saying that in the world of where the customer is not so much king, they’re dictator, they’ve got much more information actually being fair, being simple, delivering good service, it’s a good business model. You know you can actually be successful. Amazon, it maybe be a load of black spots in the way it treats a lot of its people but it treats customers fairly.


GERRY MCGOVERN: Ethically. It actually treats customers ethically. You know like any time you’ve got a problem or stuff like that and of course now they’ve got models where people are giving them the keys to their cars, Amazon are delivering to your boot of your…

GERRY SCULLION: And the keys to the house as well.

GERRY MCGOVERN: And the keys to the house because you know hey this is a company I trust in the process. You know so there is a business model for being fair to this new world of customers that is out there, that is looking to be treated fairly and if you, and of course fair is not enough, you’ve got to deliver value, you’ve got to get it there quickly. But if you’re actually fair with your, I think the big revolution is with the current customers.

GERRY SCULLION: Yeah the emerging customers, the customers they’ve haven’t won yet.

GERRY MCGOVERN: Forget about the actual customers you have. I think if you look at most organisations, most of their strategy is focused on the promise, the promise to the potential customer and they totally neglect their current customer. I mean what do they do to the current customer? They outsource or they automate, the less we speak to them the better. They see the current customer as being captured and as trapped, you know? Whereas the clever customers; how did Slack grow? Current customers. This is really easy to use, tell your friends. It wasn’t the CIO who got Slack, it was the 200 engineers who then went to the CIO and said ‘you better get a licence’.

GERRY SCULLION: You need to pay for this, yeah.

GERRY MCGOVERN: Yeah you better, you know and if you look at Amazon, you look at Google, you look at Facebook, you know who advertises? It’s companies like Yahoo who are out of business now. They’re the people you see on that, the companies that you can’t understand how to bloody use the things so they have to advertise the thing. But Googles and Amazons, they have built, Amazon prime, their models are built on looking after the customers so their current customers become the champions in the social space. They become the marketers. So I think the shift is focusing on your current customer and delivering them such an amazing experience that they champion you to their friends etc. So they become your marketing engine.

GERRY SCULLION: Yeah so we could touch a little bit about, I suppose I wasn’t going to include the marketing aspect but I’m really keen to hear your understanding of what’s the role of marketing then in terms of getting in new customers, if they’re not going to focus on the acquisition of new customers, what does marketing do then? Traditional marketing I mean.

GERRY MCGOVERN: Well what marketing does is, it’s indirect; for years I’ve said offline marketing is about getting attention so you’ll still have some, nothing ever is any total one shift to another, you know you move from radio to TV, you still have radio. So you’ll still have traditional offline strategies but offline marketing is essentially about getting attention but online marketing is about giving attention, right?

So marketing should be saying how do we create an amazing experience for our current customers? How do we help and how do we communicate that because how do we create an army of marketers?

GERRY SCULLION: Yeah I know a lot of UX people would probably argue and say well we’re responsible for delivering that excellent experience and not marketing.

GERRY MCGOVERN: Yeah, well you know that’s tribal talk.


GERRY MCGOVERN: You know so the best solutions anywhere are inherently collaborative and multi-functional and multidisciplinary, right?

Marketing has a lot of people and has a lot of budget and instead of getting in the way as it is in a lot of cases, if we champion and harness those skills and change the thinking, so nobody should be saying about winning the game on their own. So the more alliances we can create within the organisation, the more everybody wins within the organisation, the more likely winning is to occur in the first place.

The more it’s only UX win or it’s only advertising, the more we have the old school thinking in the process.

GERRY SCULLION: Absolutely. I’m just going to take the conversation back a little back; we were discussing trust effectively in the broader scheme here but if you had to describe trust, what is trust to you?

GERRY MCGOVERN: Well trust is kind of the oil that lubricates the economy. So if you look at very low trust societies, the economy moves in a very turgid, difficult way and it becomes family-based or whatever because distrust is what you get charged to do business. So if I distrust you, I’ll check you up, we’ll have to get in a contract or no I’m not going to pay you now. You know so in two people who distrust each other basically it takes much longer to do a transaction typically, right? Two people who trust each other, the transaction can be much more seamless, much less steps in the process, oh you’re going to talk my xxx21.58, I’ll talk your xxx22.0 blah, blah, blah; you know we don’t trust each other so we need a lot of law and we need a lot of regulation. So distrust is the cost of doing business, so the more distrust, the greater the cost. However, the way you can get around trust is true use, so if you make something so easy to use that the benefit of the convenience is so great then often trust is not as important, well it’s a kind of displaced, if you think of it, you don’t trust Uber. I mean would you trust Uber management? But who do you trust? Do you trust the people who use Uber? So we use Uber, number one because it’s really easy to use and it makes it easier to get in and out of that taxi but number two, because people like us have said ‘yeah that taxi driver is safe’.

So we’ve displaced our, not so much re-channelled trust away from ‘I trust the company’ to ‘I trust the people who actually use the service’. So again, it’s that shift towards the consumer. We’ve managed to find through technology models of divining customer trust. So customer trust was like a type of oil, you know there was originally oil was just underneath the ground in Saudi Arabia. Then after 40 years, they find it in Canada in shale and they have techniques to kind of get into that shale-based oil which was very difficult to get. So the customers like shale oil. It was very hard to get at 40 years ago but now because of the net and networks we can actually…

GERRY SCULLION: Tap into it.

GERRY MCGOVERN: We can tap into it. Customer trust among us that was very difficult to tap into 40 years ago.

GERRY SCULLION: I know we were speaking a little bit more about the, I don’t want to call it a Facebook scandal but definitely I think they’re suffering a case of mistrust or distrust at the moment but yet their revenue has now just proven in the last month, it’s actually gone up. What does that say about the customer’s trust in relation to revenue?

GERRY MCGOVERN: Well what it says is a couple things. What it says is immaturity, what it…


GERRY MCGOVERN: Of the customer, like Facebook is a customer-obsessed company. Thing is, they know their customer so well. They know everything, customer obsession can become stalking, you know, like obsession can be good and bad, you know. But what we have from the customers point of view is basically a kind of make it easy for me, I’m easy. And a kind of a false accounting in most people’s mind because, as many people have said, when it’s free, you’re the product. So people say ‘what can Facebook make of a customer every month, 20 year or 30 year?’ Facebook knows how much you can make off us, right? And what would it cost if they actually charged us for all the services?

GERRY SCULLION: On a month by month.


GERRY SCULLION: I know Charles is talking about this at the moment.

GERRY MCGOVERN: Obviously a lot less, right because otherwise they wouldn’t be making billions. So if they can make 30 Euros off it, at most it’s costing them 10 so they’ve got a profit of 20. We look and they say to us ‘hey, we give you this thing for free’ and we’re going ‘Oh, that’s amazing’, not realising that we’re actually essentially handing them 20 Euro a month. So we don’t realise the value of our own data, right? We’re suckers. We’re the suckers in there, there’s a guy walks into the pub and he says ‘I’ll buy you two pints for free but you’ve got to drive me home’. And we go ‘oh that’s a great deal!’. We have to drive him 100 miles home. We think we’ve got a great deal because it’s cost us 20 Euro in petrol and our own time. But we think we’ve got this amazing deal because he bought us two pints.

GERRY SCULLION: Do you think, I know there’s a lot of food for thought in this one topic on its own but a lot can be applied back to how we research and the ethical approach of how we opt in. I think people don’t really understand the power of the data.

GERRY MCGOVERN: No they don’t.

GERRY SCULLION: Because they don’t understand, they don’t understand …

GERRY MCGOVERN: But we’ve driven this guy home six or seven nights. We begin to think it’s not as good a deal as I thought it was so I think there needs to be more of these Trumpian moments or you know of exploitation of data. So this will hit Facebook I am sure but they’ll be a lag in it and maybe they’ll be ready for it when, so maybe it’ll be four years, five years, six years but sooner or later people are going to realise hey this isn’t such a good deal as I thought it was or they’ll realise the value, the inherent value used to be in my labour but now it’s in my data. There’s as much or more value in my data as in my sweat.

GERRY SCULLION: No absolutely.

GERRY MCGOVERN: You know the sweat equity, the data equity.

GERRY SCULLION: The by-product, yeah.

GERRY MCGOVERN: And the people begin to recognise that I’ve got a lot of data equity and I’ve got a lot more than I thought I had.

GERRY SCULLION: Absolutely. So this is a brilliant segue into what comes after this period of distrust?

GERRY MCGOVERN: Well there’s the shift in trust and of course then there’s the exploitation. So the shift in trust as shift appears so now we’ve got the bots who are pretending to be our peers, so now they’re really exploiting the peer base trust and will that destroy peer-based trust, you know the bot armies and then where will trust next go? Or can we protect peer-based trust? Because trust has shifted and even if we go to doctors who we claim we trust; 95% of people but then 60 or 70% will go home and check it up on the internet.

GERRY SCULLION: Google, yeah.

GERRY MCGOVERN: So I think there are different types of trust. If you go back when we were children, most Irish people had essentially blind trust. We blindly trusted the church. We blindly trusted teachers, government, doctors. And blind trust is the basis of corruption and the basis of abuse of power because anybody who’s blindly trusted says ‘you’re a chump’, you know, ‘you’re a…’ of course they’ll exploit you because you’re an idiot, because whatever I say to you, you do it. You know so even good people become corrupted by blind trust in the process. So now we’re coming into a more world of I’ll trust but verify, you know…

GERRY SCULLION: Tell me what that means.

GERRY MCGOVERN: Well means I’ll give you the credit of the doubt but I’ll check it out.


GERRY MCGOVERN: You know and actually accept what you’re saying to me and I’ll do it but I’ll go home and I’ll do a search, you know I’ll verify. Is this the right tablet to be on? Because we see all this stuff coming in the medical entities and this scandal about smear tests. I mean this is just the 1600th medical scandal and the reason why it is as it is is Irish people accepted what the medical institutions said to them. Medical institutions behave and surgeons and consultants, they behave like gods. They behave with a deep, deep, deep arrogance, a kind of ‘how dare you even remotely question me who is the consultant?’ And of course they make mistakes like everybody else and then they’ve got the medical council who protects them. It’s like a cabal, it’s like a little mafia of medical entities in Ireland and now they’re being challenged. Now we’re shining the light on them and they don’t like it. Well they’re going to have to get used to it.

GERRY SCULLION: Yeah because that’s the period of change.


GERRY SCULLION: For anyone listening globally, like basically we were discussing earlier there was a case in the court this week where a lady had a smear test four or five years ago and it was missed that she had I think it was a tumour of some sort she was growing and she’s basically terminally ill and un-saveable in some ways and she won I think it was 2.6 million in the court.

GERRY MCGOVERN: But they found hundreds like these.

GERRY SCULLION: But now they’ve found 150 cases like this.

GERRY MCGOVERN: It is systematic, you know because these people in power feel omnipotent, untouchable. Well they’re not untouchable anymore and you know this wave of people power, you know people are more educated, they’re more sceptical, they’re more cynical, they’re less willing to accept, they’re more questioning, you know it’s messy but it’s great.

GERRY SCULLION: Yeah so what does this mean for I guess the future of design, service design because I don’t think this is representative of an organisational dysfunction? Is it representative of other things?

GERRY MCGOVERN: Well it’s representative of a new type of organisation that is not parasitical, you know if you have essentially a model that is either patriarchal or exploitative or parasitical; oh we’ve got these dumb people. You know look at the biggest brands, Pepsi and Coke what do they do? They give you diabetes and they make you fat. Right, you know or else they sell you shit food, salty snacks or stuff like that and because they do this amazing branding we think they’re this extraordinary thing that’s doing us good.

A huge amount of the economies are based on exploiting our stupidities and our emotional; ‘oh if I have a coke I’ll get a girl’ you know like all the cool people drink Coke, like’s it’s exploiting our emotional deep stupidities, right. And it’s not that we, we’re all stupid and clever, you know. But we’re becoming more clever, we’re still stupid but we’re not as easy to fool. We still can be fooled. So there’s models now which says treat people well, deliver great services, make it easy. You know government we’re talking about interaction now; why do they create that complexity because that’s job security.

GERRY SCULLION: Well it’s job security but it’s also representative of the organisational structure and they’ve replicated the products. We were speaking about Mygov earlier on in Ireland. There’s an attempt to consolidate a lot of the entities into a single entity and without going into too much detail I’m having some trouble with we’re trying to get things set up over here because I’ve just relocated from Australia. But is that, whose fault is that?

GERRY MCGOVERN: Well you said the replication of the organisational structure and you’re right but how do those organisational structures evolve in the first place? You know they evolved from a point of view of we’re now part of government, we’re superior, we’re in control.

GERRY SCULLION: Self-serving.

GERRY MCGOVERN: Yeah rather than self-service.

GERRY SCULLION: Yeah this is quite funny because I was about to quote Gerry McGovern to Gerry McGovern. I think you wrote about this in a newsletter.

GERRY MCGOVERN: Oh probably but basically they from traditional Ireland where you know government was in control of you, the priests were in control of you, the doctors were in control of you and now we’re in a new Ireland where there’s a lot more Gerrys like us who are calling BS and saying ‘hey that’s not acceptable anymore. You don’t need to send me through seventeen steps. The reason you send me through seventeen steps is to actually give them job security and give them a sense of power and control etc. and because they never really think about the person who’s using the system. It’s all about how do we make it easier internally etc. and how do we keep our job security.

Now government has a crisis of legitimacy because people are looking at government and saying ‘what good is government? Government just makes my life miserable, it doesn’t deliver good services’, you know I’ve got Amazon, I’ve got Google. You know if I search in Google, I get better stuff about government than if I search on a government website. So I why can’t Google be the government in the future? So what we’ll see happening is government being stripped of all the services that it can be stripped of right and it’ll be left with the roads and the potholes and it’ll be left with all the expensive, the stuff that nobody else wants or that they can’t turn a profit.
If government doesn’t change, because government people say to me ‘well they’ve got a deal with us’. I say ‘no they don’t’. In most environments somebody else will take that or else you’ll get a Donald Trump. You’ll get people more and more disillusioned with government delivering value and being up to date and you’ll get these populist reactions over time to government. So government can’t afford to sit there saying ‘well they’ll have to deal with us’.

GERRY SCULLION: Someone else is going to take control of this problem. It’s really interesting. I hadn’t really thought about what comes after trust as being privatisation and opportunities for other businesses to step in and replicate almost government’s responsibilities.

GERRY MCGOVERN: Well they free the data. The data gets freed so people will say ‘no I can present this data in a better way. So I’ll syphon off all the nice stuff and then government will be left with the really expensive stuff that nobody else wants.

GERRY SCULLION: Yeah one of the big things that I’ve noticed since I’ve come back home, sorry to harp on about I’ve come back from Australia, but there’s a lot of differences. But one of the things, it’s a cultural thing and when I left Ireland people were I guess a bit more weathered with the recession and they were accepting things, it was like ‘well that’s just the way it is’. Now when I’ve come back people are screaming and when something’s not working there’s like ‘go and tell them’. And it’s something like I guess service designers particularly were an absolute nightmare to go shopping with because everything is being monitored as I go through those experiences. But it’s a cultural thing that I noticed and it’s really important, if you’re not happy, stand up, speak, shout.

GERRY MCGOVERN: Oh I mean when you think when we were kids and if our parents brought us to a restaurant and if the food was bad well you’d be chewing on leather meat and you’d be saying ‘geez it must be my teeth, I don’t know, I must go and see the dentist’. You know and you’d be so totally embarrassed, you wouldn’t say a thing and today you will. You can’t get better service if you don’t have narky customers.

GERRY SCULLION: I know one of my friends in Australia was telling me, he’s lived in Germany, and he goes for a meal in Australia, in Sydney and they’re like ‘how was your food?’ And everyone around the table goes ‘it was fine, it was fine’. But when he goes back to Germany it was like ‘how was your food?’ And he was like ‘well the steak was about five degrees under, it wasn’t cooked to my specification’. And they’re like ‘okay, cool we’ll refund you for that’. And it just says something more about the culture.

GERRY MCGOVERN: But it’s probably somewhere in the middle we need.

GERRY SCULLION: Yeah absolutely. We don’t want too much of that otherwise everyone will go bust.


GERRY SCULLION: But I’ve got a couple of questions from the Slack community and it’s more talking a little bit more about Top Tasks. I’m going to drop a link into the show notes about Top Tasks about how you can learn more about it.

But xxx36.41xxx who is the lead UX consultant at ANZ, one of the bigger banks in Australia at the Slack channel said I want to know about alternatives to Top Tasks and what you’ve seen in organisations that might have seen resistance to Top Tasks and organisations that are using their own methodologies and if you can name any and why they think that there was resistance to the adoption of Top Tasks.

GERRY MCGOVERN: Well there’s resistance because again it’s a cultural thing, if the organisation, the essential difference is that you go to most websites and it’s what we want to tell you or promises for potential customers or whatever whereas Top Tasks tend to be more orientated towards current customers because they’re the greatest, you’ve far more current customers unless you’re a start-up than you have potential customers. So Top Tasks tends to be more orientated towards a current customer base when you go out and do it. So you get a lot of resistance from traditional marketing or traditional management figures who feel ‘no we’ll tell you what to do’. The other side of Top Tasks is it says transferring money is a Top Task and then it measures and it says well 30% of people can’t transfer money and of those who can it’s taking them three minutes and it should only take them 30 seconds and the idea is to continuously improve the Top Tasks. So a lot of organisations we deal with, as I’m sure you’ve found, still have the project culture of ‘oh no we’ve got a transfer money process, we’re not going to continuously improve it’ because they don’t measure customer’s time. So the next element of Top Tasks is that you measure the top task and you come back and you report well here’s the success rate at 60% and it’s taken three minutes and then the model is how do we get the success rate up to 100% and how do we get the three minutes down to 30 seconds?

So most organisations don’t want to do that; they don’t want to measure the actual customer experience as what they’re doing. So these are the core challenges that we find in a lot of places.

GERRY SCULLION: Yeah have you found the application of Top Tasks, I know it’s traditionally, tell me if I’m wrong here, I’m saying traditionally like it’s digital channel-focused, have you seen that applied across an omni channel experience?

GERRY MCGOVERN: No that’s interesting because what we’ve done maybe in the early years that’s what we did but the way we frame it now, I did my first big project in Ireland in five years, even though I live, I’ve had no customer here for five years with the Irish Department of Health with HSC and when we did the Top Tasks for them, the way we framed it was, in dealing with health, not your health because we wanted to get the doctors and people looking after, carers and so in dealing with health what really matters to you.

GERRY SCULLION: So look outward/inward.

GERRY MCGOVERN: So not digital, not physical so when we did it with Toyota we said in buying a car, not even a Toyota car, not online, not offline. So we’ve moved away very much because people don’t understand offline and online. They don’t say ‘I’m going to buy the car online today’. They just say ‘I’m going to buy the car’. So then they say ‘Oh I’ll check and then I’ll maybe go to a dealer’. So customers don’t think in channels. They may use channels but they don’t think in channels, right. So we frame it agnostic. So we and, in choosing a university, so we collect tasks that aren’t even digitised yet so ‘how to do you deal with your health?’ So we try to find the whole treatment, post treatment, pre-treatment, anything that could be connected with choosing the university, buying a car, in working for Tetra pack, you know what’s most important to you in a day to day basis; in working for the BBC, in building an engine for Royals Royce. So we try and make it agnostic and then you look at the map that comes back and you say digital can deal with this, physical and sometimes it’s a mix of things. So Top Tasks ideally is agnostic of any channel.

GERRY SCULLION: Do you have any insights in regards the behavioural differences between channels?

GERRY MCGOVERN: You know what you’ll see, I don’t know if I pronounce his name, Luke Wroblewski.

GERRY SCULLION: Yeah Luke Wroblewski.

GERRY MCGOVERN: He’s a great guy. I really admire the work he does. But I was listening to him at An Event Apart there a couple of months ago and he was saying that typical behaviour in a desktop or a laptop or whatever is about 20/30 interactions a day, about a minute or two minutes or some number whereas on your phone it’s about 80 but 10-30 seconds. So the type of behavioural interactions tend to be much shorter bursts, you know, need to do this, need to…

GERRY SCULLION: Quick tasks.

GERRY MCGOVERN: Or quick little segments of a top task. So you might be doing a short, ‘oh what’s the price? Oh what’s the…’ you know or ‘where does it fly from?’ so you might be doing bm, bm, bm, bm and then finishing it off somewhere else. So you’ve got these much more shorter, but then sometimes because the channel, you might be reading up the details of your diagnosis at home on your smartphone before you go to bed, you know there are these patterns that they show the later at night, the smaller the device. So the device doesn’t necessarily mean on the move, it could be on the toilet, in bed. But then sometimes you’ll see in hospital, because we’ve done quite a bit of health work over, that you’re approaching the hospital, if it knew you were approaching the hospital right it could say ‘oh parking’, how to find the place you need to go to. So there are all sorts of ways and it comes down to of course trust as well; will I allow you to know where I am in the process. Knowing where you are rather than knowing what device you’re using is the crucial aspect of…

GERRY SCULLION: It’s a different conversation.

GERRY MCGOVERN: Like if you were coming into a big conference, so you might have been checked in at the desk but they now know it’s October 18 when the conference is on so they now can know you’re 30 miles from Dublin, well what are they going to tell you? Where you’re going to get parking etc.

GERRY SCULLION: Where’s the cheapest parking?

GERRY MCGOVERN: Where’s the cheapest?…this is service design.

GERRY SCULLION: Yeah absolutely. It’s not parking; it’s the cheapest or most secure parking.

GERRY MCGOVERN: Exactly, exactly and then how much of a walk is it to blah, blah, blah.

GERRY SCULLION: It’s going to rain.

GERRY MCGOVERN: Well we know that here. You forgot your umbrella. But basically it’s knowing people and ultimately people will know like they give trust to Amazon, say you can use my you know so ultimately trust will become, it’ll come back again in an even bigger way because we begin to realise the entities that are truly, right now we don’t know that we’re being exploited and our trust has been exploited but it’s all about having this deep, deep, deep understanding of the customer and using it properly. You can get short term gain by exploiting them by long term you can build tremendous businesses as Amazon has shown etc. by actually not treating people badly, by giving them a good price, by giving them a good service.

GERRY SCULLION: Are you happy to name any companies that you think are doing it badly?

GERRY MCGOVERN: Well I think practically 80-90%, all the banks, all the insurance companies, all the, their whole business model is to exploit you, the longer you’re with you, the worse they treat you. You know most companies that I deal with, you know you want customer service from them, they outsource it or you know there’s very few companies that really are customer obsessed.

GERRY SCULLION: Yeah. That’s true. I’ve got one more question from xxx44.28xxx who both of us actually quite know, great guy, xxx44.32xxx, he does great work, great guy xxx, I met him at UX Australia last year and he commented on the channel as well and he wanted to ask you what’s the one thing an organisation must not get wrong when embarking on a digital transformation?

GERRY MCGOVERN: The one thing is that they must not get wrong is the customer. It’s the customers you have not the customers you don’t have and it’s basically they must not get wrong their understanding of the customer. So they must get right knowing the customer and understanding how they behave and how they think and where they can to click and what button; you know the true understanding of the actual customer and I think the more they expose the organisation, the more people within the organisation that get exposed to the customer. So where I see things fail is where oh you know there’s a tiny group of people who actually get it or spend time with their customers. So they must spend time with their customers, they must invest in…

GERRY SCULLION: The research.

GERRY MCGOVERN: And research is too small a word almost, in actually knowing and being around and exposing, like Google has their developers, I remember a guy, Thomas Sheridan, he’s a great guy who says they feel Fridays when they bring the developers out just to meet and watch customers in small businesses in garages and stuff like that. So the more they invest in truly understanding and developing empathy for their customers, if they get that right everything else will fit into place.

GERRY SCULLION: Wow, okay. That’s fantastic advice. We’re just going to move the conversation to a little bit more about Gerry McGovern himself. This is what we do towards the end of the interviews and a key to understand who inspires you and who do you look for a thought leader in this area?

GERRY MCGOVERN: Well certainly the people that I’ve looked at, we were talking about earlier, Jared Spool, you know Jakob Nielsen, there’s a guy Paul Taylor in the UK who I think is good. There’s a tonne, you know, I’m always reading stuff and in a way it’s not fair, it kind of I mentioned those in a way because so many years they are embedded in my brain but there’s so many people, there’s so much interesting stuff. It’s a movement of Gerry Gaffney and yourself and you know there’s so many people, there’s thousands and thousands. It’s a kind of world park. There’s a shift; every country, every place. There’s a whole group of people that are really moving in this direction. We’re at this pivotal moment; which way do we want to go? Do we want to go the exploitative treat customers like they’re stupid, exploit the hell out of them, get as much data from them as possible? Do we want to partake in the dark arts? Or do we want to go for the light and actually create fairer, better societies. I think these are no longer decisions of the so-called ‘great men’. We can have a say, every one of us. I think every one of us today has a responsibility to actually make the world a better place.

GERRY SCULLION: Absolutely. That is actually a great way to end the conversation. But I’ve got to continue for another three questions because we’re moving to the very final three questions. And it is again coming back to a little bit more of a Gerry McGovern, what is the one professional skill that you wish you were better at?


GERRY SCULLION: That’s like me as well.

GERRY MCGOVERN: Yeah what I learnt years ago with Nua when I had a consultancy and a group, I’m not a good manager in there’s so many areas that I’m bad at, you know, and probably what I’m best at is evangelism and stuff like that and what I’m bad at is practically everything else.

GERRY SCULLION: I don’t know about that.

GERRY MCGOVERN: No but often we have these things we’re good at and so many things that you know are not a good, you know I knew I was not good at managing people and building companies so I’ve worked with a very loose network over the place. And I often realise how blind I am, you know it’s scary when you look at things and you go over stuff and then you go over them again a day or two later and think was that there? You know and you miss it so I realise all these blind spots I have and I’m scared of them you know that so often for me to do something well I have to go over something like 10 or 15 times.

GERRY SCULLION: To make sure it’s right.

GERRY MCGOVERN: To really get a sense of everything that’s in the environment. If I’m trying something almost straight immediately I know I’m going to miss a lot of stuff. So I’m a very iterative type of, I think as well I usually start off making a load of mistakes and then iterate myself through those mistakes. But I suppose the strength I have is that I keep going.

GERRY SCULLION: Resilience which is a huge strength.

GERRY MCGOVERN: Resilience and generally reasonably open.

GERRY SCULLION: Yeah absolutely.

GERRY MCGOVERN: And hopefully wanting to keep that way.

GERRY SCULLION: Fantastic. So the second question is what is the one thing in the industry that you wish you’d be able to banish?

GERRY MCGOVERN: The tribalism. I think what we’re seeing is tribes within tribes within tribes, as the world becomes more complicated we have to go into smaller silos in order to develop the skill set to actually do a decent job at anything, right? But actually do the job we need to work with multiple other groups because the job is so complex. So we’re finding, isn’t it rare you find a multidisciplinary conference?

GERRY MCGOVERN: You know or if the service conference, the UX, if the IA conferences and we’re all fighting each other you know splitting hairs and over so you know if we could overcome our tribalism you know our three million year old tribalism, which is the hardest thing we can overcome, and truly look outwards and look to work with people who are not like us, you know and often look to work with people who we initially have an instinctive dislike for, you know and say ‘oh those people don’t, because I do this, that’s my,…’ I’m just as much a tribal mind instinct; ‘oh those are horrible marketing’ or ‘those horrible developers’ you know and actually you’re not just have empathy for the customer, have empathy for people who are not like us in our discipline and create bridges, to have a lot more bridging of disciplines.

GERRY SCULLION: Yeah okay excellent. The last question is; what is the message you’d give to emerging design talent for the future.

GERRY MCGOVERN: You’re lucky. This is an amazing time. There’s extraordinary possibilities but evidence, you build evidence, learn how to analyse evidence, don’t look to this gut instinct, well you haven’t developed it yet but you know be very careful about it I think because the gut is three million years old you know in many ways and I’ve seen so many instances of where the gut instinct is not right. Get the evidence and constantly iterate, don’t think of this idea of the design that’s built to last; think of the idea of the design that’s built to change.

GERRY SCULLION: And that is an absolutely brilliant way to end the conversation. Gerry McGovern, thank you so much for your time.

GERRY MCGOVERN: Thank you Gerry, great conversation.

GERRY SCULLION: So there you have it. I hoped you enjoyed this episode and if you’d like to be part of the conversation or community, hop on over to where you can request to join the Slack channel and help shape future episodes and connect with other designers around the world. Thanks for listening and see you next time.


John Carter
Tech Vlogger & YouTuber

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