Dedicating Time and Talents to Help Communities Thrive

This year, Fathom Consulting celebrates 20 years in business. In addition to happenings planned throughout the year, we’re sharing a series of blog posts celebrating what’s led to our success over the last two decades while looking forward to the years to come.

Our 20th year in business has been one of reflection, celebration, and gratitude—which seems especially apt for the month of November. This is the time of year when we traditionally give thanks … and also give back through our annual team event. In addition to some “off-site” fun and good-natured competition, we dedicate a portion of our event to community impact. This year (to mark our own milestone birthday) we created birthday bags—20 of them!—for children and their families staying at the Ronald McDonald house.

But efforts like this don’t take place once a year. Community impact has been present since our founding and is actually built into the Fathom Consulting mission: to partner with our clients and community to drive meaningful change.

To achieve “meaningful change,” we place a priority on maintaining a culture that empowers (and encourages!) team members to dedicate their time, skills, and strengths toward doing something great for others. And last year, we created a structured program for those who are interested in bridging their personal passions with professional expertise. It includes:

  1. Professional involvement

Like many organizations, we encourage our consultants to join professional organizations and regularly attend events. Our team members are involved in (and in many cases, serve on the board of) business and healthcare groups like:

  • American College of Healthcare Executives
  • American Red Cross
  • Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (AAMI)
  • Medical Alley Association
  • Minnesota Children’s Museum
  • Minnesota Habitat for Humanity
  • Minnesota Interactive Marketing Association (MIMA)
  • Minnesota Women’s Economic Roundtable
  • One Heartland
  • User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA)
  • Women’s Health Leadership TRUST (WHLT)
  • Women Business Leaders of the U.S. Health Care Industry Foundation (WBL)

It’s also common that these organizations meet in our new office space in the North Loop—that we built out with spaces designed specifically with community gathering in mind.

  1. Social contribution

Outside of the professional community, we recognize team members’ efforts to make an impact in areas they personally care about while still wearing their “Fathom hat.” Sometimes this manifests as an individual employee volunteering, mentoring, or otherwise donating their time and talent; at other times, a small group of Fathom consultants bands together to volunteer, fund a scholarship, or share experiences with others.

  1. Innovation for impact

Finally, team members are encouraged to use skills—such as teaching, facilitating, or consulting—to empower organizations to fulfill their own community impact missions. Fathom Consulting serves in an advisory capacity for Impact Hub MSP and the former Treehouse Health, organizations that exist to make a positive impact on the Twin Cities and healthcare, respectively. Innovating in how we use our talents helps Fathom team members to explore new skills, get energized with new perspectives, and try out interesting ideas that might someday apply to a client project.

Impact for the community …
Our community impact program is monitored by an internal working group that tracks activities, measures progress against goals, and brings awareness to ongoing efforts.  A few highlights from the last 12 months include:

  • Preparing and serving a healthy meal for families living at the Ronald McDonald House
  • Hosting a day-long meeting of Kata practitioners to learn about scientific thinking
  • Workshopping ideas to increase member engagement at Impact Hub MSP
  • Facilitating a co-creation session with local seniors to find innovative ideas to support those aging at home

… and for Fathom
Our commitment to living out our mission of achieving meaningful change in the community has not only been beneficial to others, but has also helped fuel our success as an organization:

  • Aligning work with personal passions has helped employees see their values reflected in their workplace culture—which is key to retaining talented, passionate people.
  • Stepping outside our day-to-day projects has enabled us to think in new ways, get different perspectives, become exposed to new ideas, and connect to diverse people and ways of working. As consultants, we thrive on that!

When I step back and look at the learning, professional satisfaction and growth, and connections to people (including future clients and employees!) that are a direct result of our community impact initiative, it becomes clear that we are getting out just as much as we are putting in.

Consistent Feedback Creates Continuous Improvement

This year, Fathom Consulting celebrates 20 years in business. In addition to happenings planned throughout the year, we’re sharing a series of blog posts celebrating what’s led to our success over the last two decades while looking forward to the years to come.

For years I’ve walked around our office spouting one of my favorite phrases, “feedback is a gift!” And I truly believe it. When someone takes the time to give you honest feedback—and you take the time to reflect upon it—growth always follows. Since our founding, it’s become clear to me that high-performing team members crave regular feedback to fuel their own professional growth and improvement.  As the team at Fathom Consulting consists of high performers, feedback has become a core component of our culture.

Like many other organizations, giving and receiving feedback underpins our formal annual review and recognition processes. But since once-a-year feedback isn’t enough to satisfy our team, we also work to build in additional time throughout the year, including:

  • Biannual, formal peer reviews
  • Regular, two-way feedback with clients during projects
  • Presentation dry runs and deliverable reviews with peers
  • Client surveys at the end of projects
  • Facilitated post-project discussions with team members
  • Self-reflection


Sharing feedback isn’t easy …

Our organizational values include collaboration, candor, and integrity—all of which are required for team members to give open and authentic feedback. Our values also include flexibility, which means our consultants must be willing to adapt and grow based on feedback they receive. But in a notoriously nice Midwestern locale, it can be challenging to get people comfortable with giving and receiving feedback. There’s a skill to doing so in an effective way, and we practice as much as we can.

In giving feedback, we work on ensuring our comments are specific and actionable, timely, and offered in the spirit of helping another person grow. When considering how and when to give feedback, we assume that the other person is looking for ways to improve their performance and skills and will value our observations and reflections as part of their development.

In receiving feedback—especially feedback that we didn’t expect or don’t agree with—we assume (and acknowledge) positive intent. We encourage each other to consider what we can take away from the feedback—how we might use it to listen, understand, and improve.

… but it is worth it.

After years of practicing together, we’ve learned that solid feedback strengthens our:

  • Consulting skills. Sometimes we have to deliver tough messages on a project, get people from varying perspectives to align, or diplomatically challenge our clients (and each other)—which are all forms of offering feedback in service of creating an exceptional product.
  • Team dynamics. It’s true that innovation happens when happy people fight. Having a team of homogenous thinkers is dangerous. Feedback helps us tackle things head on and avoid allowing things to fester. It helps us to grow and develop individually and as a team.

By practicing getting and giving feedback in many formats, we normalize it a bit—it becomes expected. Yet, having feedback so present in our daily work still isn’t easy. We’re not perfect at it; sometimes there are hurt feelings and frustrations. However, in the end, this team of high performers enjoys the opportunity to improve, and to help our teammates to do the same.

Honoring Individual Strengths

This year, Fathom Consulting celebrates 20 years in business. In addition to happenings planned throughout the year, we’re sharing a series of blog posts celebrating what’s led to our success over the last two decades while looking forward to the years to come.

As I reflect on what has contributed to our success over the last 20 years, a few things stand out to me. One of them is that the team at Fathom is truly a team of team of learners and leaders. My colleagues are excited about exploring their professional passions and have the freedom to activate the talents that are most meaningful to them.

The associated challenge with this perk? It can be tricky to lead a group of leaders. While it’s thrilling to have team members all empowered to find their own expression of leadership, we do need to find ways to create a cohesive unit that generally moves in a shared direction.

Since joining Fathom Consulting, I’ve had the opportunity to witness, noodle on, and address a variety of organizational changes and challenges just like this one. As someone who pursued a graduate degree in Organization Development, Change Leadership and Conflict Management, tackling challenges like these is the sort of thing I get jazzed about.

And the solution I’ve arrived at for our “leading leaders” conundrum? Fostering an environment that focuses on strengths.

It starts with self-reflection

When I was in graduate school, I was introduced to the concept of “self-as-instrument.” The idea is essentially this: The only tool that any individual has to bring about change, to guide themselves or others in a direction, is themselves—their actions, behaviors, and choices. They must choose to use their skills and abilities in deliberate and thoughtful ways to guide others. In short, they must use themselves as the instrument of change. And getting good at using self-as-instrument requires complete clarity about the unique skills and abilities one most naturally and authentically possesses and can bring to bear.  Getting this clarity starts with a practice of self-reflection.

Being thoughtful and honest about what you are good at—and what you are most interested in—is something that each individual must do on their own.  Journaling, conducting self-reviews in parallel with an annual performance review, and leveraging some of the many existing tools (Clifton StrengthsFinder is one of my long-time favorites) are great places to start. Once you figure out your strengths, you can share these talents within the organization to lift everyone up.

A culture of feedback

In addition to identifying personal strengths, employees get plenty of feedback from coworkers—both formally and informally. One example of peer feedback is Fathom’s High Five program. Each team member gets a budget for the year that can be used to recognize colleagues who’ve done outstanding work. When the occasion arises, the High Fiver chooses a gift for the Hive Fivee and publicly recognizes their awesome work at the monthly all staff meeting. Another example: peer feedback is integral to annual performance reviews. Twice each year, Fathom Consultants identify a handful of others with whom they’ve worked closely in the last six months. Those colleagues are asked to respond to two simple questions: 1) What strengths has the consultant displayed and 2) How can the consultant improve to be more effective in their role? We’ve learned that often your colleagues can spot your own strengths and talents better than you can. 

Using strengths to do great work
Through self-reflection and peer feedback, we strive to uncover the unique thing each consultant brings to the party—subject matter expertise, industry experience, or skill mastery. Strengths are considered  in:

  • Performance reviews
  • Monthly all-team meetings
  • Consultant-driven internal “lunch and learn” sessions on a particular topic of interest
  • Surveys and project checkpoint discussions with clients
  • Talking about and sharing project insights with each other
  • Matching people to projects that let them play to their unique areas of strength


According to my colleague Julie Pettit, a strengths-based environment is not only rewarding, but it’s necessary to best serve clients. She says, “We have come to depend on it. If we were all uniform, we could never survive as a small business. Embracing everyone’s unique strengths allows us to be more nimble and meet a wide variety of client needs.”

Why celebrating strengths is right for us

In a society that often zeroes in on personal deficits, it’s common for organizations to approach employee development by focusing on areas of relative weakness. In fact, this is how we used to approach professional growth at Fathom. But about 10 years ago, we flipped our focus. Now, we encourage people to play to their strengths.

And you know what we’ve learned? Really good things happen when you bring people together and allow them to foster their strengths. Our employee satisfaction scores are consistently above 80 percent. Consultants work with Fathom for more than seven years on average. Fathom has repeatedly made the list of the “100 Best Companies to Work For” in the Twin Cities.

The individual strengths our team members possess (and continue to grow) are a tremendous asset, and I couldn’t be more thankful to have the opportunity to work with such a collection of uniquely talented individuals.

Practice Makes … Progress: Leading through Uncertainty with Scientific Thinking

Last month, Fathom Consulting had the pleasure of hosting members of the Association for Manufacturing Excellence for a day-long gathering focused on scientific thinking in organizations. Among the speakers were a cardiologist, two nurses, lean manufacturing managers, and a welding supervisor—all united by a shared conviction that many complex business problems require a different approach, perhaps best described in two pictures.

Since this is often true …

… then this pattern of thinking can be an effective way to reach challenging goals in a complex environment.

 

While this specific process—known as Toyota Kata—comes from the world of lean management (and Mike Rother’s 2009 book of the same name), it is useful for navigating any kind of complex change in organizations and communities. Quite simply, kata means “form” or “routine” in Japanese. In this case, that routine is scientific thinking.

Kata practitioners (who prefer the term “Kata Geeks,” thank you very much) embrace the idea that today’s solutions probably won’t fit tomorrow’s problems, and the path to a challenging goal can’t be determined in advance. Instead, they practice a universal means of developing their own solutions through scientific thinking, which focuses on a pattern of “test, learn, adapt, repeat.”

Throughout the day, Kata Geeks shared professional and personal examples where following this deliberate pattern of thinking allowed them to improve organizational performance and develop thriving teams, even when the challenge was daunting and the path forward uncertain.

Our keynote speaker, Dr. Val Ulstad, helped us reflect on how people react to change, both individually and in groups. Using the principles of “adaptive leadership,” Dr. Ulstad described how leaders can better understand and influence patterns of human behavior in uncertain situations. One highlight: when leading change, she encouraged the audience to aim for a “productive range of tension,” in which people are challenged enough to remain engaged, but not so much that fear leads to resistance.

We even had a chance to try out the Improvement Kata through a pretty fierce puzzle-building competition.

Now that a few weeks have passed since our (first annual) Kata Practitioner Day, I’ve had some time to reflect on what I learned. If you are leading your team through uncertainty, change, and complexity, these are three ideas to consider.

1. Accurately diagnose your challenge. What is the most pressing problem facing your organization today? Do you have it mind? Good.

Now consider two images: 1) a pendulum clock, ticking with order and precision; and 2) a cloud, its individual molecules morphing and dissipating over time. Thinking about the issues and environment around your big organizational challenge, are they steady, stable, and unchanging, like the clock, or unstable, interdependent, and constantly moving, like the molecules of the cloud?

What philosopher Karl Popper described as “cloud problems” have also been called systemic, adaptive, or—my favorite—wickedproblems, as our keynote speaker Dr. Ulstad described. She observes, “The most common cause of leadership failure is treating an adaptive challenge with a technical fix.”

When you begin a change initiative, your chances of success are greater if you accurately diagnose the problem as technical (like the clock) or adaptive (like the cloud). Ask yourself: Can we solve this problem with capabilities that already exist in our organization? Or will people throughout our organization need to learn new capabilities?

If it’s the latter, you may need to shift your leadership approach and mindset.

2. Navigate with a compass, not a map. When working on an adaptive problem in a complex environment, one of the leader’s most important roles is to set clear direction and paint a compelling picture of the gap you are working to close. In other words, what’s happening today? And what should we see happening in the future? Kata Geeks refer to that gap as your challenge—you might call it a long-term objective, a guiding star, or a strategic goal.

The implication? Your leadership role is to articulate that direction clearly, but not necessarily to know how you’ll reach the destination. That’s easier said than done—we typically perceive that leaders need to have the answers—so it might be helpful to focus your attention on a few key questions: 1) How does our current work align with our goals? 2) Are we approaching that work with a deliberate pattern of scientific thinking?  3) How is my leadership encouraging (or inhibiting) that pattern of thinking?

Gradually, your confidence will rely less on clear solutions, and more on your team’s ability to experiment quickly in the direction of your shared goals.

3. Go first and model the way. One participant asked a simple question at the end of the day: “This is great, but where do I start?” Our advice: Start with yourself. Leaders who practice scientific thinking tend to adopt a coaching model of leadership rather than a command and control style. But it’s hard to coach others when you’ve not yet practiced yourself.

If you want to encourage scientific thinking—or any other pattern of thinking, acting, or interacting—in your organization, you’ll have to go first. This is the deceptively simple secret to changing culture. Start with changing your own visible leadership behaviors, and you’ll begin to reset the accepted norms. If it’s a learning organization you’re after, you might begin with small shifts in your reactions to uncertainty:

“I don’t know. How can we learn more?”

“Let’s go see together.”

“Let’s try it and see what we learn.”

“Our hypothesis is …”

As they say, the only constant is change. The practice of adaptive leadership, coupled with a scientific thinking mindset, is a powerful approach to leading through the exhilarating uncertainty of the future.

Founding Concepts from our Earliest Days Still Ring True Today

This year, Fathom Consulting celebrates 20 years in business. In addition to happenings planned throughout the year, we’re sharing a series of blog posts celebrating what’s led to our success over the last two decades while looking forward to the years to come.

On May 7, 1999, Robin Carpenter and Jan Oldenburg founded Evantage Consulting with a focus on bridging strategy, technology, and the customer experience.

Let me quickly set the scene on what was happening as our organization was founded at the cusp of Y2K mania. The internet was gaining traction as a force to be reckoned with (for most businesses). For the first time, IT and marketing teams were required to work together on things like ecommerce and web-based products and services. The inherent messiness of how organizations worked (or didn’t!) was getting exposed to customers, and it wasn’t pretty.

Robin and Jan had hybrid backgrounds, having spent time in marketing, operations, and technology—and they saw an opportunity to integrate the voice of the customer, which could serve as a neutral way to help make decisions about what to do in this new internet world.  While it is more common today, the integration of the customer experience was truly visionary at the time.

Since our founding, a few things have changed. We have evolved our brand to Fathom Consulting. We’ve moved our offices to accommodate a growing team and foster collaboration with our clients and each other. We’ve deepened our research, concepting, and prototyping toolkits, and tackled organizational and operational challenges that span enterprises, not just departments. We’ve also largely stopped talking about “digital” as something different and unique. Even in this era of “digital transformation,” we believe success lies within deeply understanding and delivering on what customers and employees need—with digital as an integrated partof the holistic, system-wide solution—not the endgame.

However, some founding concepts remain the same after 20 years in business. Early in my tenure at then-Evantage, I remember Jan sharing a perspective that made an impact on me. The idea was this: the interesting stuff happens at the intersections of things—at the boundaries, edges and bridges. I remember thinking how true that is,  how important it is to pay attention to those spaces, and get really good at tackling problems and driving new thinking by understanding the multiple perspectives coming together. This sentiment guides our work today—in terms of who we hire (hybrids!) and the kinds of problems we solve for clients.

On May 7, 2019, Fathom still thrives at the intersection of strategy, technology and customers. We are still owned and led by women. We still have a great time working with our colleagues. And we still look boldly ahead to the exciting opportunities that await us in the future.

20 Years of People Propelling Success

This year, Fathom Consulting celebrates 20 years in business. In addition to happenings planned throughout the year, we’re sharing a series of blog posts celebrating what’s led to our success over the last two decades while looking forward to the years to come.

At the top of my list of things to celebrate? Our consultants—modern-day renaissance professionals who move our clients from complexity to confidence. From our start as Evantage Consulting in 1999, the most important ingredient in our recipe for success has been our smart, creative, low-ego, and collaborative team.

Anyone who has spent time with us knows we’re constantly striving to push the bar higher in all that we do—from client projects, to the perfect team building event, to fine-tuning the mechanics of a well-constructed team.

For many years, we hired largely on instinct. While that served us well – our average employee tenure is over 7.5 years – we recognized it was time to mature our process. With nearly half the company weighing in at some point, we dove deep into giving our hiring process an overhaul.

Like we might approach a project for a client, we took a step back, clarified our objectives, and collaborated to arrive at the specifics of what we needed to do on the hiring front. While it wasn’t necessary for us to develop a fancy tool or a magical test that puts Myers-Briggs to shame, we worked to formalize a process that candidates now follow, including a:

  • Personal capabilities presentation
  • Case study review
  • Hypothetical project approach
  • Conversation with a team of potential peers

As we started to use the new process, we found it to do just what we hoped for: enable our team and candidates alike to have a realistic mutual understanding of one another before taking the next step. With a small, high-performing team like ours, we know this deeper level of knowledge from both parties is essential to ultimate success.

As part of this effort, we also articulated the traits of the consultants who are successful at Fathom, to help guide our efforts to seek out future hires. We look for people who are:

Leaders
At Fathom, leadership means having at least 10 years of experience. It means consultants feel at home in a self-directed environment. It means team members thrive on solving problems creatively with actionable solutions that really work. And it means people leading the charge without ego getting in the way.

Hybrids
By definition, “hybrid” refers to combining two different elements in a mixture. Bringing a mix of experiences to the table enables consultants at Fathom to appreciate the variety of perspectives that often arise in client work. For example, team members have backgrounds that might include roles inside an organization and at an agency, or experience in marketing and information technology.

Curious, analytical, and continuous learners
Changing things for the better—for our team, our clients, or our community—requires consultants to have a desire for absorbing and producing new ideas. To foster meaningful and lasting change, all team members are encouraged to investigate new things, and share these passions and interests with the rest of the group.

Naturals at WOO (Winning Others Over)
Understanding how to connect with people is critical for team members. “Nerds with solid social skills” is something we consistently joke about, yet it’s really true. Consultants aren’t afraid to go deep and get geeky, and are able to communicate these passions effectively.

Once we identify the desired traits are a match, we consider fit with not only current clients and projects, but also with where we see market and client trends heading. Finding the next great addition to our team takes time and it shouldn’t be rushed. Our updated hiring process makes it a priority to set expectations (for ourselves and candidates) that determining mutual fit takes some time—and that’s OK.

For me, one of the joys of working with a team with this collection of traits is that we are always evolving and pushing upward – as individuals and as a team. We always encourage one another to evolve and improve. During my time at Fathom, I’ve been shaped and inspired by my respected colleagues. As consultants, people are the tools of our trade, and I know that finding talented humans that are the right match for our team is essential for success as I look toward the next 20 years.

Reflecting on Business, Leadership and Resiliency in the New Year

This time of year is natural for reflection, taking stock of the past and establishing goals and making plans for the future. It’s a perfect time to set your intention for the year ahead. When managing change—in your organization or your personal life—reflection represents an opportunity to assign meaning to the successes and missteps of the past year, enabling you to become more resilient and steadier as you embark on a new one.

Taking time to reflect is one of the most important things I do as a leader. Whether I’m looking to make big changes in the coming year or just thinking about how I want to approach this year’s team building event, clearing the time and space to really listen to myself helps me to create clarity and enables new connections that allow me to be an effective leader.

Here are some of the questions I always find helpful as I take time to reflect and begin to look forward:

  • What are your unique strengths and how will you build on those? As a believer in an appreciative, strengths-based approach to life, I know there is great value in understanding and building on your own strengths (and those of your team), rather than focusing on gaps. Take the time to “inventory” your personal and your organizational strengths and think about how you can amplify those to benefit your leadership style and your business’ bottom line.
  • What problems do you really need to solve in the year ahead? Or even the next few months? Too often I see people focused on what outcomes they must deliver or what projects they have to get done. I’m asking a bigger question. Whether you have challenges with personnel, customer service, organizational development or something else, prioritize the difficulties that, if left unchecked, will have the biggest negative impact on your business.
  • What would need to be true to solve those problems? This question enables expansive thinking. Business rarely conforms to the ideal, which makes plotting a problem-solving course even more difficult. Consider how your organization, in the most ideal circumstances, will mitigate challenges in the new year. Will solving problems require a more connected and engaged team? A new approach to marketing? Letting go of something you’ve “always done”? Then, how will you as a leader implement the changes needed to solve the challenges ahead?
  • How can you best “show up” for your organization? Creating resiliency and managing change is a daily priority for business leaders. Taking time and energy for reflection is one of the ways leaders can “show up” in support of their organizational goals, hopes, and dreams. I recently came across a metaphor about leaders “getting on the balcony” – taking yourself out of the day-to-day and focusing efforts on the business instead of in the business. By standing on the balcony, leaders can gain valuable perspective and assess how the organization is working instead of just what the business is “working on.”

 

Self-reflection is not just an exercise for your business; it’s like scheduled maintenance for your leadership ability. With the fast-paced speed of life and work, it takes planning and diligence to ensure you are making the time to do it. The goal of reflection is not about generating a to-do list what you will do next—it’s about creating time and space, thinking deeply, and clarifying how you will approach the future with an open mind and a mental roadmap for navigating personal and professional pitfalls. Are you ready?

Connect with Fathom Consulting at SDN Midwest June 15

It’s been fun to be part of small group of service design professionals who have started a Minnesota chapter of the Service Design Network, and I’m looking forward presenting at the first annual Service Design Network Midwest Conference in Minneapolis on Friday, June 15.

The theme of the conference is “Meaningful Connections,” and the day’s discussions will focus on how we can all design and deliver experiences that build stronger bonds between service providers and their users.

My presentation, “The Need for Connection Among Older Adults who are Aging in Place,” will delve deep into what connection really means to those in their golden years and how best to design services (with their valuable input) that meet their specific expectations and higher-order needs.

Other presentation topics will include service design and AI, ethics in design, and behavior change. Following the conference, attendees will take in the Minneapolis art scene at the annual Northern Spark arts festival. This year’s Northern Spark theme is “commonality,” a fantastic follow-on for SDN conference participants looking to delve deeper into the notion of connection in art, design, marketing, and user experience.

Service design in practice

Through collaboration with the local service design community, I’ve been able to practice unique methods to ensure that people are always at the center of not only how products are designedbut also how they are delivered, supported, and usedday-to-day. In fact, at the first few meetings of the local service design chapter, we used service design techniques like a Business Model Canvas to decide what “job” the organization would fulfill in our own lives.

This user-centered approach to service design is also reflected in the work we do at Fathom Consulting. As we approach service design projects with our clients, we are increasingly recommending facilitated co-creation exercises as a best practice. Co-creation is a process by which all stakeholders–particularly the recipients of the service–are at the table and making their voices heard. When the users of the service are in the room, you often arrive at unexpected ideas informed by diverse perspectives, and you ensure your solutions are tailored to their needs.

I always enjoy projects where we find unique ways to connect with users and look forward to connecting with other service designers to learn more about their experiences. I hope you can join us at the conference and connect with the budding local service design community as well!

Learn more about and register for the SDN Midwest Conference.

User-Centered IoT: What’s in it for them?

This is the second blog post in our series about connectivity. Get caught up by starting with “Connecting the dots: Three big reasons businesses are thinking about IoT

Similar to other product improvement projects, adding connectivity to a product must take into account how your customers will feel about the capabilities. Will they find it beneficial to be connected or, on the other hand, see it as intrusive?

In our experience, we have seen organizations focusing on one of two user-facing benefits to “connecting” a product: 

Multi-Channel Access

Expanding access points — Enhancing connectivity to allow customers to access services or products in new ways, including omni- and multi-channel experiences from a variety of connected devices.

 

PDashboard wireframeroviding data to the user — Enhancing connectivity to provide data collected by a product back to the user of the product. In these cases, the hypothesis is that the data will provide some valuable insight to the user causing them to feel or act differently based on what they now know.

 

But even user-focused, well intentioned upgrades run the risk of users feeling that the added complexity (or cost) isn’t worth the proposed value. Like all hypotheses, your approach to connecting your product should be carefully tested with users—before spending time and money developing communications protocols to transmit the data, or programming analytics engines to generate insights. Below are several interesting research questions that are worth considering when thinking about providing data to users:

1. When customers view this data, what will they do differently because of it?

Customers will find it unhelpful to receive data they can do nothing about. Performing research to put sample data in front of customers and find out what, if anything, would cause them to take action is key to making a good connected product. Additional testing can determine whether the insights are useful, easy-to-understand, and delivered at an appropriate frequency.

Pay careful attention to providing users with insights too late to be useful. If a restaurant finds out their refrigerator was running too warm seven days after the food in it was already served to customers, they might be more frustrated than if they had never known at all.

Also consider whether it would be beneficial for the product to take the next logical action for the customer. Rather than notifying a homeowner that their lights are on and nobody’s home, why not just shut them off?

2. What is the full picture of data that would need to exist to drive this action?

Often, usage data alone may not provide adequate insight to trigger an action. But when combined with additional data from another source, the insight becomes clear and actionable. Find out from users what other relevant data is available to them, and how you could combine it with your data for maximum utility. For example, telling a surgeon only how many rubber gloves she used is just about as useful as telling her how many gallons of gas her car consumed. Without being able to see how this information correlates with the number of surgeries performed, your customers won’t be able to tell if their usage is appropriate or changing over time.

3. What is the best way for the user to receive the data?

Most users will prefer to consume information in a place they are already going rather than bounce between several disparate systems. If they aren’t regularly accessing the product for data and insights now, it’s unlikely they will in the future (unless it is a very unique and compelling insight!). For example, many medical remote monitoring companies are now integrating device data with their customers’ existing electronic medical record software, rather than delivering it by bespoke hardware monitors or one-off web portals.

4. What are the user’s boundaries when it comes to data privacy?

It’s important to understand where your users will draw the line about allowing a device to capture data about them. Even if the data can be used to provide a clear value, if seen as too invasive, adoption could be limited. Telling a marathoner how many miles she’s put on her shoes might be great, but if the data also reveals what time and exactly where she is running, she may feel it could put her in a potentially dangerous situation.

5. How does being connected change the service model?

Users can help define if connected device experiences are additional touchpoints or replacement touchpoints. They can also point to ways that being connected could enhance or empower existing touchpoints. For example, field sales calls may remain a primary touchpoint, but sales reps could be provided with more tailored sales recommendations customized to the way the customer is using the product.

Ready to implement?

Once the business objectives and user experience goals are thoroughly analyzed, there are some important things to consider about how the connections get built and implemented. None of the strategy and research methods we’ve covered so far are all that different from other product and service design efforts, but in our final installment we’ll cover four unique questions that we feel are critical for connectivity project teams to consider prior to implementation.

If you’re interested in more information about user research with connectivity ideas, this post was also the basis for a recent presentation to TC UX Meetup.

Connecting the dots: Three big reasons businesses are thinking about IoT

During a recent happy hour gathering of Fathom Consulting colleagues, a few of us realized a common thread running through several otherwise unrelated projects. It seemed that, all of a sudden, many of our clients had been bitten by the “connectivity” bug.  Though diverse across industries, products, and services, many of our clients were actively exploring ways and reasons to allow their standalone products to communicate—to each other, to the cloud or data hub, and, in some cases, directly to users.

An active discussion ensued: What had we learned across these projects that we could share with product and program owners who might be considering connectivity solutions in the near future? Thus, a blog series was born.  (Watch for two more posts in the near future!)

But first, a few definitions

Internet of Things (IoT) refers to the networking of physical things (often referred to as “smart devices”) in order to collect and exchange data. Some products we’ve worked with include medical devices, inventory control tags, and consumer goods.

A simpler, but related, concept is that of “connected devices.” Connected devices send or receive data to at least one other device. They might use Internet protocols to make the exchange (making them part of the IoT), or they might just be connected directly to one other device (for example, a monitor on a patient that communicates via Bluetooth to a monitor across the room).

These days the terms are used almost interchangeably. For these blog posts, we’re sticking with the broader label of “connected devices”—since most of the points we want to make are relevant whether or not the device is truly part of the IoT.

“Connectivity is the tool, not the target”

Let’s start off with the obvious way that this latest technological capability is identical to all the others that came before it.  Just like getting on the web in the late ‘90s and getting on social media 10  years ago was unwise unless you had a valid reason to do so, pursuing a connectivity solution just for the sake of it is just as likely to leave product owners feeling disappointed, foolish, and poor. Like all successful innovations, a move into a connected landscape must be underpinned by solid business and user objectives. We’ll explore three good business reasons to get connected in this post and user benefits in the next post.

1. Provide efficient service and effective support

Traditionally, products that have shipped and are in the hands of users can be hard to maintain. The user has to do their own maintenance, and troubleshooting often involves frustrating phone calls to 1-800 numbers.

But products that have shipped and are connected can more easily be maintained and repaired by a remote update. Rather than a service technician being deployed when things break down, fixes or version updates can be pushed to a user’s device via the Internet. The company saves time and money, and the user is back up and running much faster.

Combine the ability to service products remotely with increased visibility into how the product is operating, and it may be possible to proactively solve a problem before the user is even aware there is one. Connectivity can not only prevent things from going wrong, but also make sure things go right. As an example, Tesla Motors recently pushed an update to its cars allowing drivers in Florida to drive more miles between battery charges as they evacuated prior to the arrival of Hurricane Irma.

Even in cases in which a physical product must be fixed in person, the benefits of a company communicating with its products can still be realized. Data received from the device ahead of time could be used to diagnose the problem and ensure the dispatched technician has the correct tools, parts, and expertise to complete the job.

2. Gather data on product usage

When sitting down to discuss how a product could be improved or what features should make the cut-off for the next launch, we consistently counsel our clients to consider how their users use the product today. It makes more sense to spend design and development capital on important experiences that a re frequently used or difficult rather than upgrading features that no one knows exist. Yet often our clients have to make educated guesses or spend time on baseline research just to understand what, exactly, their customers are doing with their products.

But when products in the field are connected and communicating usage data, suddenly insights about problem areas or underutilized features are readily available. These insights can inform product design and feature lists in a way analogous to web analytics. When combined with additional information the device might collect on the location, time, and the user’s identity, this data can even serve as the foundation of a robust persona or inform an audience-specific design process.

In addition, usage information could empower others at the company who interface with the user. Perhaps a certain user needs additional training on advanced features or is operating the product in an unethical or inefficient way that should be addressed. If the inventory of consumable products can be captured and transmitted, then sales calls or promotions could be expertly timed.

3. Define new service and revenue models

The ability to provide more options for serving and charging your customers increases exponentially once a physical product is connecting in real time. Rather than a monthly service fee, customers could pay for each time or day they use the product. These options could be attractive to customers who otherwise would not have purchased the product, believing that they wouldn’t use it enough to justify the subscription fees (similar to the pay-as-you-go mobile phones).

Leasing models on connected products could now include low, medium, or high-usage plans, or advanced features could be immediately enabled after payment of an upgrade cost—akin to web apps like Google Drive or SurveyMonkey. This gives the makers of physical products new ways to get their foot in the door with customers at a lower price point. Costly medical monitoring equipment or seldom-used safety equipment could follow the path of tiered pricing models set out by digital-only companies like Hulu, or sell packages of concurrent users like Adobe.

Instead of connecting with customers a few times a year via in-person visits or phone calls, you could have literally hundreds of small touchpoints with them each month as they interact with you via the product. This could drastically change the closeness of the service relationship, while saving the business money on a costly field sales and service team.

Need more reasons?

These benefits to the business may be reason enough for many organizations to see the value in getting connected. Basic back-of-the-napkin math on increased sales or savings from more efficient service is often enough to justify the investment in getting connected. But remember—we’ve only covered the internal benefits here! Next time we’ll explore how to create connected solutions users will love, too.