6 August 2012

How to decide which form fields to delete

By Debre

We often see marketing teams asking for heaps of information during signup. “How did you hear about us?” “What is your title?” (I’ve seen a title list that included not just Mr, Mrs and Ms, but His Royal Highness and Admiral. I kid you not.)

I appreciate that marketers want to know these things to help them in their jobs. But adding fields will cost you users. So here’s a handy guide to deciding which fields you need to get rid of…


25 November 2011

Work around your own irrationality and be better designer

By philbuk

We’re irrational. People like Dan Ariely and Daniel Gilbert have convinced us of that. Irrationality affects us in our roles as entrepreneurs, product managers, designers and developers. And it affects our colleagues too It can lead us to make make poor business decisions and deliver failed user experiences.

I did this talk for a meeting of the SA UX forum. It looks at three patterns of irrationality: loss aversion, the Ikea effect and the identifiable victim effect, and how to work around them to get the best from yourself and your team.

24 July 2011

Flow project: 25% increase in registrations for MXit

By philbuk

Flow helped MXit create MXit 6: a stylish and easy-to-use new version of their mobile phone software across three types of handset. The project delivered a 25% increase in daily registrations in the first month, to over 60 000 registrations per day.

Delivering a great user experience across the widest range of handsets is key to our strategy. Flow has been an essential part of the process for us. – Juan Du Toit, Head of International Business Development and Marketing.



The Brief: Design a new user experience for MXit on Java, Blackberry and Android devices.

MXit is Africa’s largest mobile social network. It earned this position by offering cost-effective access to messaging, gaming and information services on more than 3000 models of handsets, which include low-end feature handsets.

But the minimalist approach that gave the platform such broad reach tended to make MXit hard to understand for first-time users, and less appealing on smartphones.

So Flow was asked to help create a new vision for MXit, called MXit 6, The aim being to improve the user experience and make it more appealing to more users on more devices.

What we did: Research, concept design and detailed interaction design in an agile software development process.

Usability testing on the existing product showed that many new users struggled to get started on MXit. The initial experience of arriving on MXit tended to be quite puzzling – which could be discouraging.

We looked at what our personas needed during the “onboarding” process and designed a concept that:

  • Improved registration by helping people to pick usernames more easily
  • Made people easier to find on MXit, by enabling people to enter their phone number and email address without worrying that the information would be made public
  • Helped new users to find their friends fast, by linking MXit straight to the phone’s address book and searching automatically for friends
  • Surfaced the valuable services that MXit offers beyond person to person chat, including chat rooms, games, practical apps, classifieds and email


We worked with key stakeholders to create concept sketches of what the new service could be like. Then we worked those into a clickable mockup so we could test the concept with target users.The testing showed us that people were amazed and delighted when they could see what MXit had to offer – and that we were on the right track.

Once the conceptual direction was clear, we followed an agile process to get the project designed and built. We worked alongside three of MXit’s client software development teams simultaneously: Java, Blackberry and Android, to help them deliver a user experience that felt appropriate for each platform.

We created detailed wireframes for all aspects of the service, including inviting friends, searching, sending photos and sounds, and adjusting settings. This involved creating a new interaction paradigm for the Java client, architecting new menus and settings screens and revising thousands of titles, labels and error messages to give MXit 6 a friendly and helpful new tone.





A final usability test on the beta software helped us track down down some critical, last-minute usability improvements.

The result: The foundations of a remarkable new user experience for MXit – and a significant increase in registration and usage.

At the end of the first month after launch, new registrations were up 25%. Key apps within MXit have also seen dramatic increases in use, directly generating increased revenue via MXit’s Moola digital currency.

UX redesign, plus improved performance and stability has put MXit’s Android client in the top 5 on the Android Market in South Africa.

“We’re very proud of the results, ” said Shu-Aib April, the product manager for the MXit 6 client. “Working with Flow helped our team deliver a great new user experience. And our on-going concept work together means there’s plenty more amazing stuff to come.”

Users were pretty enthusiastic too. Some comments:

Just have to say the new mxit is shweet!!!

New overall UI is stunning in looks and very practical and user friendly. The Active chats tab top far right is very convenient and a great addition. Very impressed.

MXit 6 on Blackberry… All I can say is WOW!! Big ups 2 the team!!! happy for days

And that’s why we do it.

23 July 2011

Handing over control of your social profile?

By philbuk

Registering for a site using Facebook connect, or connecting an app to your Twitter account, asks such scary questions that you could be forgiven for backing out of the process.

Zynga wants complete control of your Twitter account. Does that feel safe to you?
Zynga wants complete control of your Twitter account. Does that feel safe to you?

Gowalla wants to access your private Facebook data while you sleep. Spooky.
Gowalla wants to access your private Facebook data while you sleep. Spooky.

Who’s fault is this? I think Facebook and Twitter need to provide a better mechanism for companies like Gowalla and Zynga to explain their privacy policy and how they will really use the power you are granting them. Then again, maybe Zynga is being a bit greedy with the permissions it is asking for.

We’ve seen it in usability tests and we feel it as users. It’s too scary and unless the motivation is sky high. And we ain’t playing.

25 April 2011

Launch and learn – don’t crash and burn

By philbuk

“Launch and learn” is a great way to tune innovative, digital products to customer needs. But at worst, I’ve seen “launch and learn” used as an excuse for lazy, dysfunctional teams to launch ill-thought-out products that don’t provide customer value. And then listen in all the wrong ways.

Digital teams can behave in strange ways. Designing software can do that to you. To highlight how launch and learn can go wrong, let’s try a thought experiment…

If the Johannesburg’s rail link had been launched by a digital team

Johannesburg’s airport rail link, the Gautrain, was launched in 2010 before it was finished. But they did a pretty good job. I was happy to put up with the unfinished stations because they provided something essentially valuable to me from the start: fast transport with no traffic jams.

But if the Gautrain had been rolled out in the style of many a digital innovation, the process might have looked something more like this:

Gautrain, rickshaw, skates

Version 1.0 Beta

Open the tracks between Rhodesfield and Marlborough, two small stations. Don’t run any trains. Let customers walk between the two stations.

User opinion: This could be a good way to get fit. People might like this. (Which actually means – “I don’t really see the point.”)

Version 1.1

Open the tracks from the airport to Sandton.

User opinion: This could be useful, but can we have rollerskate rental at each station? Walking is too slow. Also, can we have 25 extra stations, since I have to skate right past my office, get off at Sandton station, and then skate back?

Version 1.2

Provide a rickshaw service to Sandton.

User opinion: I preferred walking. Can we give rollerskates to the rickshaw men? They go too slow. And can we add more rickshaws? And where are those extra stations?

Version 1.3

Give rollerskates to the rickshaw drivers and open 15 new stations.

User opinion: We’re getting a lot of rickshaw snarlups at the stations. It’s slowing traffic to a crawl. The station you opened still isn’t near to my office. It’s also not good when it rains because the rain blows in under the rickshaw canopies. I’m going to go back to using my car.

At this point, further investment seems unlikely.

Unless you can get a visionary investor to buy into…

Version 2.0

Replace the whole rickshaw system with frequent, fast trains and reduce stops to just a few, high-traffic stations. Spend on a major marketing campaign to get people to come and try the service again: “No More Rickshaws TM”

User opinion: I preferred the rickshaws. And I resent having to pay.

User opinion three weeks later: I can’t live without it.

How it goes off the rails

That (fictional) project failed because the team didn’t deliver visible customer value at launch, and then made knee-jerk reactions to customer whims.

They launched the easiest thing. Because software development is hard, this is understandable. But it’s not great for business. Customers come to you for value. If the value were easy to deliver, it wouldn’t be value — and they wouldn’t pay for it. As Jeff Bezos famously said, “You earn reputation by doing hard things well.” If you launch something that doesn’t prove customer value, you’re just teaching the market that your product is pointless and should be ignored. You’re alsdo demonstrating that as a team, you can’t deliver the goods.

They built what people said they wanted. Your users are not designers – you are. People can’t imagine the future and are bad at predicting what will make them happy. Remember Henry Ford and his “faster horse?” Your job is to observe and understand what they need, then design and develop innovative ways to give it to them.

So they blew thier big chance by losing investor/executive confidence from the start. Even though executives will demand early launch, they’ll also be the first ones to wield the axe when a rushed idea doesn’t fly.

The Right Way

Rather than going for a throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach, use a more scientific method.


p>Don’t launch the minimum product. Launch the minimum desirable product.

  • Observe and interview users in contextual research or competitor usability testing sessions.
  • Work through a concept design phase: personas, scenarios, storyboards, and iterative feedback.
  • The design will get more and more complex, but stick with it and it will collapse into something simple. Then you’ve got a product vision and a version 1.0 that’s worth building.

It’s a few weeks of work, but it will stop you from wasting your big chance on building the wrong thing.

Learn by observation, rather than listening to opinions.

  • Look at web analytics to find out what people are doing. Use usability testing to observe and uncover why they are doing it.
  • Try out new ideas with A/B testing or paper prototype tests.
  • Don’t wait for the feedback to come to you. Go get it with usability testing.
  • If customers say they want feature X, understand what underlying need has driven that request.
  • And don’t ask “would you like the service to do this?” because people have a terrible tendency to answer “yes”.

So let’s re-write the classic advice with a bit more precision: Launch valuable, easily-understood websites and apps as quickly as possible, so that you can start gathering reliable observations and feedback from real customers.

4 August 2010

Design thinking: Make your business amazing

By Debre


Originally posted on

What is design? Most people will answer that question by pointing to a designed object – the iPhone, for example. Now that’s good design! The Mini Cooper. London’s famous map of the Tube. Anything ever built by Norman Foster. That’s design, right?

Wrong. Design is not the object, but the process that created that object. It’s a process that is part creativity, part method. A process that takes a lot of time, much instructive failure and a great deal of thinking. And thinking is something that looks a lot like Doing Nothing At All.

Amazing: The only adjective that counts

It’s very hard to explain this to a client. The Silicon Cape is beavering away right now, making software and websites and iPhone apps. Just do me a design! I need to show my investors something by next Tuesday, and we’re launching before the end of the month. You guys have designed stuff before, right?

Yes, we have designed stuff before. So we know that if you just take assumptions and preconceptions and bundle them up in the first format that crosses your mind, you might churn out something decent, but you’re never going to make something amazing. And given how much stuff is out there, and how little attention people have left to give to it, amazing is the only adjective that counts.

If you want to make something amazing, you have to be prepared to do the following:

  • Understand and frame the problem. If you start by saying “I want to make Object X”, you will only ever make that object. If you start by thinking about the problems that Object X will solve for its users, you have taken the first step on the way to creating something exceptional.
  • Talk to real users. Let’s say you have this amazing idea for a piece of software that will revolutionise farming in South Africa. But you are a 30-something wheeler and dealer, familiar with the world of venture capital and social networking. You will never be a farmer. Unless you go out and talk to real farmers, understanding their needs and framing the problem in their language, you are going to end up only making software that you think will work for farmers. There is a microscopic chance you will score a bullseye. But if you talk to your end users right from the beginning, you will know what your target looks like, and vastly increase your chances of actually hitting it.
  • Have lots of ideas. The first idea you have will not necessarily be your best. Why should it be? People who generate successful ideas take it as a given that you need to have a lot of mediocre ideas before some good ones slip out. Take Apple, who do ten concepts for every product. (Or Nobel prize winner Linus Pauling, who said, “If you want to have a good idea, have lots of ideas.”)
  • Iterate and refine. You’ve talked to users, you’ve understood the problem, you know where you’re going. But it’s still too early to launch your product and sit back waiting for the dollars to roll in. You need to design something, then go back to those real users and watch them use the thing you have designed. Those ideas you thought were so brilliant will soon show their true colours.
  • There’s a lot more to user-centred design, but that’s the basic framework. And companies that understand this process are the ones that excel in the 21st century. Britain’s Design Council recently updated their 2003 Design Index, which showed that a portfolio of 150 design-oriented companies outperformed the stock market by 200 per cent between 1994 and 2003.

    These companies continue to outperform the FTSE 100 even in the current tough times. And they are not the companies you would normally associate with the word ‘design’. On the list are the likes of Marks & Spencer, BAE Systems and HSBC – companies that take design processes and thinking styles, and apply them across the board.

    Design thinking

    Industry giants like DHL and Deutsche Telecom pay €50 000 a pop to get the HPI School of Design Thinking working on a problem. Students spend 12 weeks framing the problem, observing the target users, and coming up with an idea. That’s right, 3 months of research and design just to come up with an idea. But those ideas are not just a rehashing of what’s already out there, but truly groundbreaking. The kinds of ideas that could become the Next Big Thing.

    So why am I ranting about design? Because if you design not just your logo and your website, but your entire customer experience, your product, and the way your organisation works, it will make your business more successful.

    Don’t think this is something that happens easily or quickly. It takes time and effort and a lot of that thinking stuff that looks so much like doing nothing. And the politics of making design happen in an organisation can be overwhelming. But take courage – this stuff is not just a stab in the dark. Design Thinking is a repeatable process that delivers business-changing results.

25 May 2010

How to lose customers and alienate people

By philbuk

Originally published on

South African websites repeatedly make basic usability mistakes. The results: frustrated customers, negative brand impact, reduced online sales, and poor return on investment for the whole web project.

The best advice for making an impact online is to Zig when others Zag. Stand out. Be amazing. Give a shit.

But if you work for a South African corporation, I’m sure you’ll feel much more comfortable following the herd. So here are five instructions for making sure your ecommerce site delivers industry-standard quantities of pain and frustration.

1. Let the programmers write the copy

Here’s an error message Flow discovered during a usability test for MWEB. If you choose the wrong kind of password, you get a message that says:


Oops indeed…

This kind of language is fine for programmers, but there are a lot of people who might want to buy an internet connection but are not sure what the word “alphanumeric” means.

So how about, “Please make sure there are both letters and numbers in the password you choose, to improve your online security.” Surely more people will understand what that means?

Usability recommendation for the inspired: You won’t ask a copywriter to program JavaScript. So don’t ask the programmers to write the copy.

2. Help users to lose their work (and their tempers)

I need to log into my Standard Bank account. I have to  type in a 16-digit card number, a five-digit PIN and a 10-digit password. I am then presented with two identical buttons: login, or reset.


Can you think of any scenario where someone would want to type in all those numbers, and then clear the form? No?

But can you think of a scenario where someone might type it all in, and then accidentally click on the wrong button, thereby losing all his work and getting very annoyed with Standard Bank? Yes, because it’s happened to you, hasn’t it?

Usability recommendation for the inspired: Just get rid of the reset/clear button on your form. It serves no useful purpose.

3. Assume your customers know as much as you do

Your customers don’t know how your business works, or understand the complexities of the products you sell. They don’t care either. They just want to buy something that works for them. The job of your website it to present your goods to the customer like a salesman, not like a telephone book.

Here’s a choice example from Vodacom. I go to their website to see how much airtime I can get for my budget. I click “browse packages”, and get the following:


Hey what? I want a contract, but how am I supposed to know the difference between Talk, Weekender and 4u? Is Yebo4Less going to give me better value than Per Second Plus? If you work for Vodacom, this page will make perfect sense to you. If you’re just an ordinary Joe, it’s a complete mystery.

So maybe I’ll try the link that says “Compare Packages”. Oh dear:


Hundreds of packages, each one more incomprehensible than the last. Should I choose Top Up 135 S or Top Up 135 Lite? No wonder South Africans prefer to buy face-to-face if this is what they get online.

Usability recommendation for the inspired: Create personas: realistic fictional characters that represent your target customers. Then walk through the site from their point of view and see how it looks.

Or, hang out at your call centre for a day and listen to what customers are asking and how the call centre staff explain things.

4. Make it impossible to buy

If your website is selling something, it is vital that people should be able to buy it. Am I stating the obvious? In practical terms, that means that your forms should be the most rigorously usability-tested part of your site. Take the example below from SAA. I thought I typed in a perfectly reasonable request – I wanted tickets from Cape Town to London…


This is what I got when I pressed the Continue button…


The Departure and Destination points are the same? But one says Cape Town and the other says London! (BTW, this isn’t a bug. This is caused by a weird field validation issue. Try it).

I’m sure SAA would have a perfectly legitimate technical explanation for what happened here. But from the user point of view, it just didn’t work. If I can’t even see the price, I certainly can’t buy the product. Not a good outcome for SAA.

Usability recommendation for the inspired: Watch your analytics after launch to see where people are getting error pages. You need to continuously improve your site – don’t just launch it and forget about it.

5. Create messy information architecture and crazy navigation

I went to the information desk at Absa because I wanted to change my daily withdrawal limit. The lady behind the counter told me that I needn’t have queued – I could just do it online. She then produced a handwritten and much-photocopied piece of paper, with instructions on how to do it. It’s not complicated, but it’s utterly obscure: you need to click on Service Information, then Registration, then Change Limits. I still have to look at the piece of paper every time I need to do this.


People find online information through something called Information Scent. It doesn’t matter if you have to click five times to get to the thing you want, as long as the “scent” is obvious. Clicking on “fresh produce”, and then “fruit” to get to bananas is a strong information scent.

Replicating such a strong scent for something complicated like banking terms requires careful design of your information architecture. But if you don’t do it, your customers will come and bother your customer service team. And that costs more.

Usability recommendation for the inspired: Try card sorting. Ask some of your customers to first name and then group the functions, by grouping little cards into piles. Then build a click-through and test some other customers to see if they can find things.

The very best way to boost usability

Top get change to happen, you have to persuade your colleagues that there’s a problem. Start with a usability test. Get 10 target customers, sit them down in front of your site, and record what they do. It’s the most vivid dose of reality your team or your boss is likely to get.

That’s the first step to building a site that sells more, with lower costs, to loyal, repeat customers. What a concept.

18 March 2010

Flow project: MWEB’s uncapped broadband site

By Debre

MWEB’s uncapped broadband will revolutionise the web in South Africa. But there’s another revolution here – they designed for their customers and took the complexity out of buying broadband.

MWEB has launched affordable uncapped broadband in South Africa. Flow Interactive has been working with them on the interaction design for the launch website and the sign-up process. It’s been a complex but exciting project.

Working with Flow, MWEB took a user-centred design approach to this project. We started by doing a round of usability testing on their existing website earlier this year. This gave us many insights into how people buy ADSL. The most notable of these was that  people were almost utterly clueless about the terms that ISPs use on their sites. ADSL? HSDPA? Unshaped? Even the IT consultants we interviewed weren’t completely sure what it all meant.

MWEB's new ADSL pages

MWEB’s new ADSL pages

There was a second layer of complexity: there were so many variables to the choice. ADSL vs 3G. Three different line speeds. Multiple data caps that depended on the line speed you chose. Pricing that was affected by the choice of router.

Our mission then, was to make the process of choosing a broadband package a little simpler. Most ISP’s overwhelm people with huge tables of data, and MWEB was no exception:

Old style: large tables containing multiple variables

Old style: large tables containing multiple variables

Making a choice about what you need from such a big table is difficult, particularly if you’re not sure what the difference is between 2GB and 4Mbps. Our interaction solution was to create an interface that showed people how the price changes, depending on your choice of line speed or package:

An interface that helps people to understand how line speed and package influence price

An interface that helps people to understand how line speed and package influence price

We also designed the interface to include contextual help information – meaning that the information is provided within the context of what you’re doing. So when you’re choosing your line speed, the info about what line speed means is easily at hand.

MWEB's contextual help information

MWEB's contextual help information

Based on what we observed in usability testing, we think this interface will take the complexity out of choosing a broadband package. Not only has MWEB come up with a truly game-changing product, they made a very sensible choice in taking a UCD approach to their web development. Time (and stats) will tell just how much of an impact this design has made.

You can look forward to more innovation coming from MWEB. There are improvements to the total customer experience that are still to come, but we think this is a great start.

20 January 2010

4 ways to combat usability testing avoidance

By philbuk

Working with users during the design process will untie project knots and boost team productivity and focus. But there always seems to be an excuse for not testing. Here are 4 ways to counter the excuses and make usability testing happen.

Testing a paper prototype

Testing a paper prototype

Excuse 1: “It’ll slow us down”

Finding users, building prototypes and working through hours of research takes time. Why not spend that effort on writing more code?

Counter argument. You say: “Our business objective is to reach profitability as quickly as possible. To do that, we need to understand what our customers really need and make sure we’re all agreed on the direction. A usability test might take some time in the short term, but it will help us reach our overall business goal quicker.

Usability testing, like many UCD tactics, is an investment. You put in time and money, but you get back a product that sells better and costs less to support. But usability testing is also beneficial during the design process…

The managing director observes a usability test via a video link

The managing director observes a usability test via a video link

1. Design the thing better, quicker: Trying to design a product for target users, without ever meeting any, is like pulling teeth. But if you just watch a few users using a prototype, a competitor product or their current system, they’ll tell you what you really need to know quickly, effectively and (comparatively) effortlessly.

2. Manage the politics more easily: Successful designs come from teams all pulling in the same direction. Usability testing results will reduce squabbles, give confidence to management and get people to focus on improvements rather than feature creep. Even the most sceptical team members can’t ignore videos of 5 or 10 real people battling with their software.

3. Get a team energy boost: Seeing ideas succeed makes the team feel positive. Seeing them fail motivates people to sort things out.

Excuse 2: “Our product is already perfect”

You and your team will become so deeply familiar with the product you’ve designed that you will think it is perfect.

Counter argument. You say: “We believe the product is perfectly easy and useful. But can we prove it? How many problems exist that we’re not aware of? What impact might they have? Developers may think their code has no bugs, but we still hire testers to prove it. What evidence do we have that our design is perfect first time?”

This behaviour is often referred to as “drinking your own Koolaid“. It means you’re doubly ignorant…

  1. You do not know which parts of your design your target users will struggle with.
  2. You also don’t know that you don’t know.

In a thought-provoking piece a few years back called The Five Orders of Ignorance, software engineering expert Philip G Armour says,

“The hard part of building systems is not building them, it’s knowing what to build — it’s in acquiring the necessary knowledge… A functioning system is the by-product of the activity of finding things out.”

Excuse 3: “We already have lots of feedback”

Listening to customer feedback via email, call centre or the web is vital. Analytics and search log analysis is great, too. And it can seem like you’re getting all the user input you need.

A group of developers watching usability testing video

A group of developers watching usability testing video

Counter argument. You say: “We’re only getting feedback on major issues and from committed product users – lots of other people encounter our product and never feed back. So we’re getting a skewed perspective. Usability testing will let us observe and discuss all sorts of things that customers and non-customers would never actually feed back about. It will also explain what to do about the strange patterns we’re seeing in our web analytics. This extra insight will give us a competitive edge, because it’s not obvious stuff that our competitors also know.”

Excuse 4: “This concept is not ready to test yet.”

Ready for a usability test

Ready for a usability test

It’s easy to tell yourself that you’re not ready to work with target users yet – that your ideas haven’t settled down to something stable and complete which users will approve of.

Counter argument. You say: “Don’t worry if it’s not ready. We’ll test what we’ve got, and won’t worry much about the areas where we know things aren’t finished. It can give us reassurance that we’re heading in the right direction and stop us from spending loads of time designing a blind alley.”

The truth is, your ideas will never be stable and complete until you’ve had the input from users. Until then, they are just hypotheses. Better to test your hypotheses when they are young and flexible, rather than when you’ve spent weeks on refining them, and publicly declared them as “finished and ready”.

How to run that test

Doing the perfect usability test is no doubt hard. But doing a useful test is really easy…

  • Pump out a series of pages in Balsamiq or any one of the herd of prototyping tools that are springing into existence.
  • Set up to record desktop video using Camtasia Studio or Silverback. (Or Morae if you can afford it).
  • Ask users to tell you stories about using your product or similar products in the real world.
  • Watch users using competitor products.
  • Get users to walk through your prototype and listen to what they say (keep pretty quiet yourself).
  • Summarise findings in a top-down way. What was the overall result? What were the big findings? What do you recommend should be done about them? What were the little findings and what are you going to do about them?
  • Make video clips of the very finest moments, and encourage everyone to watch at least some of the test videos.

As Bruce Tog says, without iterative usability testing “you’re going to throw buckets of money down the drain”. So just get out there and test.

27 November 2009

Tread carefully if you want to try relationship marketing

By Debre

Relationship marketing is the holy grail of the modern marketer – but if you get it wrong, you will annoy your customers forever

[Debre Barrett is my wife and also an excellent experience designer, with many years experience at and some great Flow projects under her belt too. She wrote this post.]

Something awful happens to babies at exactly 5pm every day. They cry, they niggle, they scream. They drive you nuts until you’ve bathed them, fed them, and put them to bed. Suicide Hour, is what a friend and mother of four calls it.


One evening last week, at 5.45pm, I was busy preparing a puréed meal for the baby, a proper meal for myself, and a meal where none of the ingredients touch each other for my older daughter. The baby was perched on my one hip, exploring the boundaries of Suicide Hour. The older one needed help working the DVD, and there was only 1 hour 15 minutes between me, a glass of red wine, and a sit-down with Twitter.

Then the phone rang. It was a friendly, middle-aged lady.

Lady: “Oh hello there Mrs Barrett. I’m just calling to congratulate you on the birth of your little one, they are such blessings aren’t they? What did you have, a little boy or a girl?”

She was calling from Pampers. And I gave her an earful.

In South Africa, as in the UK, you get a free bag of baby goodies at some point in your pregnancy, or just after the birth. This bag is filled with samples of breast pads, nappies, bum creams and other products that are entirely unfamiliar to the unsuspecting new parent. It is a clever marketing tool, because it reaches a potential customer at exactly the moment when she needs to make purchasing decisions about a whole range of products that she has never encountered, and possibly didn’t even know existed. (Breast pads being a case in point.)

All they want from you in exchange for this ‘free’ bag of delights, is your name, address and phone number. It seems a small price to pay.

This is called relationship marketing. This type of marketing seeks to establish a long-term ‘relationship’ between the vendor and the customer. In order to really foster the relationship, the vendor needs to know some vital information about the customer and be able to act on that information over a period of time.

Like Pampers knowing the birthday of my baby.

In the UK, with my first child, Pampers sent me a parcel about 3 or 4 times over the course of the first two years. Inside: a booklet about my child’s development, and a free nappy. Children grow at a very predictable rate, and these free nappies arrived at exactly the right times. When the baby was about a year old and refused to lie down to have her nappy changed, Pampers sent me a pull-up nappy in the post and I wasted no time getting to the shops for a whole bag of these. It was relationship marketing at its best, because it was relevant and unintrusive.

Compare the efforts of Pampers SA, who intruded on my day at such an inconvenient time that I didn’t even bother to find out what they were trying to sell me.

If you want to do relationship marketing, you need:

  • A good understanding of your customers. If Pampers had spent even a small amount of time talking to new mothers, they would have known not to call at the arse end of the day.
  • A non-intrusive approach. Interruption-based advertising, like the ads that interrupt your favourite TV show, is fast losing favour in the modern world. A phone call to someone with a small baby is going to be intrusive at just about any time. (Oh that marketer who called and woke the napping baby! The swearing! The abuse!)
  • A relevant message. So you know I’ve had a baby. Sending me a nappy is relevant. Offering a test drive of a bigger car is relevant. Information about childhood development, common illnesses, paediatricians in my area, different approaches to education… the list goes on.
  • I am not your friend, I am your customer. I have no desire to chat on the phone with someone pretending we are best chums. Get to the point and sell me what you want to sell. Don’t try to pretend that our ‘relationship’ is anything other that that of a customer and a vendor.
  • Don’t spam. The more emails you send, the less likely I am to read them. Send relevant emails at appropriate times. And for goodness’ sake, don’t sell my email address to others.
  • Give me an opt out. South African marketers seem to think that bombarding potential customers with text messages will eventually get them a sale. No. All it will do is annoy the customer to the point of distraction. Make sure I can easily opt out of your sms and emails, before I start to really hate you.

Seth Godin talks about all this in his book Meatball Sundae. The time for marketers to be disrespectful to customers is over. The time of interruption-based advertising is over. If you annoy me, our ‘relationship’ is over. And if you annoy me enough, I’ll blog and tweet about it and your foolishness will be broadcast to the big wide world.