User journeys are not good for innovation

It’s not every day that something you’ve done or your name for that matter gets acknowledged in a book, so I’ve been reading with much excitement Hillary Cottam‘s book “Radical Help”. Even though Hilary calls herself a “social activist”, the framework she proposes could inspire anybody interested in innovation and transformation.

Still taking my time with the book. But one thing Hilary said in her speech at RSA, that we use technology just to patch things up here and there instead of innovating, brought a sharp sense that we’re using user journeys all wrong. Especially in healthcare innovation.

Too much of a good thing…

Customer journeys have been used to spot “pain points” and “growth / engagement opportunities” for a long time now. When done properly, they can be quite eye-opening in terms of how companies interact with their customers. I know this from up close: I used to run, many years ago, a small market research company specialised in user journeys.

The example I always bring up when talking about the power of user journeys came from a project we ran for a cable company. One point of tension in the journey we looked at was the subscription cancelations. People hate the punishing fees and complicated loops we all need to jump through at this point. That’s nothing new and it’s considered “good for business” in many other settings – have you tried to close your Facebook account?

But we found out that, actually, it was not good for business. People didn’t leave when they were unhappy with the product or the service – the inertia in utilities is incredibly high. They most often left because of changes in their life circumstances: moving houses, getting fired or losing someone close. Highly emotional situations. When having to deal with a bit of a patronising jerk who’s telling you that your contract won’t be closed until they receive the router back won’t make you think “that’s the best cable service ever, I will be back at the first opportunity”.

We made a simple recommendation to the company: treat your leaving customers with the same deference you treat them when you try to get their business. And that tweak (which is not that simple to adopt, as procedures, training materials and bonus plans have to be updated) drove to higher brand loyalty and a higher percentage of reactivated clients. Simples. That’s the beauty of user journeys: they are obvious. Nobody in the cable company wanted to be jerks and lose business.

Simplification makes for good meetings.

Not for innovation.

That’s where the problems start with the user journeys. They are so easy to work with. So hard to argue with. So beautiful. So let’s use them in all our workshops. Let’s put them at the heart of our innovation! We shall all just gather creatively around a carefully designed user journey (or persona, or care path, or touchpoints map) and apply all sorts of tools to come up with great ideas. Our lenses got more and more focused on discrete areas of the journey to the point we’re getting seriously myopic.

Faced with the incredible complex healthcare systems, we try to simplify and draw journeys for the doctors and then choose a point of inflection to build a solution. Most of the time a fancy app or a SaaS application. Thousands of them. Creating more complexity for everybody involved, from payers to patients.

Hilary’s perspective encourages embracing this complexity. Innovation should be messy, should be unique to a specific context, and it should definitely be harder than a 3-5 day sprint where we come up with ideas in an almost theoretical environment. What if we focused on people’s capabilities and resources, instead of their “pain points”? What if we really made them part of the innovation process – and no, getting feedback on your sketches in the second day of the sprint doesn’t qualify as really making users part of the creative process.

What if we created accelerators that bring together not verticals, but systems? Imagine a healthcare accelerator that houses and nurtures social enterprises, high growth tech mavericks, volunteer groups and hospital centres! Great ideas come from engaging with the complexity of information and emotional transfers, instead of trying to simplify it to a journey map.

So, go ahead, corporate innovators. Put aside the business book on lean-this-and-that and get inspired by radical thinking in changing social systems.

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