Why is tech missing the U-word so badly?

Tim LeRoy
on 27 April 2017

The failure of Uber, Unnroll.me (and HP) to think about their Users – Us.

“Your customer doesn’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

It comes as a constant surprise to us that anyone can miss the importance of putting the customer at the front and center of everything that you do.

Perhaps it’s the tech industry’s habit of calling them ‘Users’, that makes them easy to forget and de-humanise, but this doozy (above) from a very senior marketing executive at HP seems to show that some (large) parts of the tech industry have gotten terribly lost.

We’d like to correct Mr Maloy.

“Digital transformation can be simply viewed as the moment when you are using technology to put people at the centre of your business.”

There. Fixed it.

Unfortunately, de-humanizing the User into saleable digital data is a trend that seems to be on the rise, not the wane.

Over recent weeks the tech part of the internet has, as usual, got itself into a gleeful tizzy of schadenfreude over a couple of big U’s — Unroll.Me & Uber — who have been caught using customer data in ‘questionable’ ways.

Unroll.Me (the rather useful service that filters unwanted emails into one handy digest you can ignore) was mining a lot more information from our inboxes than most users were aware of, or liked. What undid them properly, and led to a mass delete of the app, was the revelation that they’d sold detailed information to Uber, particularly data relating to their competitors Lyft.

Perri Chase, one of Unroll.Me’s founders, rather sweetly tried to defend her co-founder, but in the process added to the company’s woes with a misjudged blog post, the essence of which was ‘he’s a lovely guy and you’re all naive idiots if you didn’t think we’d be selling your behavioural data to others, and it’s not our fault if they’re as unpleasant as Uber.’

Not to be outdone, Uber just added to the long and growing list of ways they have developed to get people to distrust and dislike them, by admitting that they still aggressively tracked user behaviour even after they’d deleted the app.

Here are two brilliant services that are genuinely useful but that both appear to be run by companies with either exceptionally dark hearts, or a willful ignorance of who pays their wages.

We all are complicit in telling the biggest lie (told globally by millions every single day): ‘yes, I have read and accept the terms and conditions’, but we expect companies to guard or precious data with extreme care and security.

Unroll.Me argues that to get a free service you have to accept them ’finding a way to monetize your email’ — maybe — but Uber have no such excuse. Use them and you pay, so that’s not the same Faustian pact at all.

Maybe we are being naive, but what those two Silicon Valley Unicorns seem to have missed is that even though we agreed to it, no-one likes data-mining, however anonymous. It feels like a my barber selling on my hair-clippings to stuff cushions. It doesn’t affect me directly, but it’s icky and I’d much rather he didn’t.

Apple swear blind that they can’t and won’t see the health data gathered by their watches. I half believe that, but what about Garmin or Fitbit or Samsung? I’ll have a tenner on the fact that we’ll see a wearables company exposed for misusing user data or selling it to insurance companies within the year.

Jeff Bezos leads a famously unlikeable company that we all use with increasing frequency because he and they relentlessly focus on the User — Us. In his most recent message to shareholders the very first thing he lists as a priority is “customer obsession.” Amazon’s overriding principle seems to be ‘if it is better for the customer, they will like it and use it more’.

I think that, like most people, I accept that you can use my data to make your service better to me. Just this morning Spotify recommended two albums (based on what I’d been listening to), one old and one new. Both of them were absolutely right up my street and they’ve been on heavy rotation ever since. Good job algorithms. But I’ve a long list of apps and services from Facebook to Yahoo who have lost me because they treated me as data rather than a person.

Which brings us back to HP’s poor Mr Maloy who unsurprisingly has taken a bit of a public kicking. If your company culture is to put the digital before the human, you will lose customers.

As Sam Walton, Founder of Wal-Mart famously said, “There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.

At Dootrix we build apps for large organisations so perhaps unsurprisingly we are Bezos-like in our obsession on the customer, but hopefully far more approachable and likeable.

Every working Dootrix day is driven by: User Experience, User Interfaces, Discovery (what do the users really want and need?), User testing (what do the users like and dislike), and constant loops of sprints where usability is designed, built, tested, redesigned, rebuilt and re-tested.

If it doesn’t work well for the user, it doesn’t work.

Every digital tool from ride-hailing apps and inbox filters to enterprise CRMs and server infrastructure, always have to put the user first. And second and third and then redesigned and made better because the user said so.

Perhaps the simple cure for the rest of the tech industry is to stop calling them users. Perhaps using ‘people’ would serve us all better.

Maybe it would remind us all that the word ‘digital’ comes from the Latin for fingers. The bits humans count on. So to speak.


If you need to be put first, front and center, drop us a line.

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