So I just finished “Black Box Thinking,” the 2015 book from Matthew Syed, in which he explores the power of failure as part of a growth mindset. It’s masterfully written.
Using countless examples from the aviation industry, healthcare, and other industries, Syed makes a convincing argument that “trial and error” experiences are the best proving ground for improvement. He makes a case that all organizations – and individuals – must learn fast, then adapt, if they want to improve a product, a process, a skill, etc.
One of my favorite cases is the Unilever laundry detergent “nozzle” problem. In the 1960s, Unilever was making a successful laundry detergent, but in the production process, constantly clogged nozzles in the production process were causing numerous quality and downtime headaches. After a team of math wizards couldn’t fix the issue, Unilever executives turned to company biologists. They came up with several variations of the nozzle. But only one of the variations had mild success. So the biologists created variations of just THAT nozzle. And then created more variations. They finally came up with a nozzle that no longer clogged, but not before 449 nozzle prototypes were created!
Syed notes that biologists think in “evolutionary” terms: conduct tests in a real-world setting – learn fast to adapt – and gain incremental improvements.
So how can technical communicators embed this “trial and error” approach into our daily projects?
Well, I have been fortunate enough to build several online help systems that are never static. We can see where users are still stumbling. Maybe it’s a single term that has not been defined. Maybe we missed a question that most users have about saving their data.
Sometimes it’s a big change. Sometimes it’s a minor tweak. So how do we gain this insight? We study user comments when they reach out to our Customer Service team. We capture their search terms in the Help Center. We use heat maps to gauge trouble spots.
Interpreting this data – and acting on it – does take some time. That’s why some teams don’t invest in this feedback. Or maybe an organization puts too much stock in “getting it right the first time?” I’m not exactly sure why incremental gains can’t be made. But in our case, the gradual improvements we make to improve the user experience has led to happier customers, and stronger relationships.
If you have a similar “continuous improvement” experience, please share them with us. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or join us at next month’s STC-PMC holiday event – December 7th, at Flanagan’s Boathouse, in Conshohocken! You can register here.
See you all there!