2024 Kickstart: Our Top Resources for Business Impact

Revisiting our Most Valuable Tech Advice and Insights from 2023

AI has been a major focus over the last year, and more is still to come!

Bringing Intentionality to AI: Why today’s design methods fall shorts for LLMs and what to do instead
In this on-demand webinar, Executive Experience Director Tyler Klein challenges conventional approaches to user-centered design and explains why they fall short in Generative AI experiences. He instead proposes a new model for the design of emergent experiences.

Training Artificial Intelligence with Real Heart: Legitimize, Confirm, Reinforce
In this blog post, Client Strategy Analyst DJ Moody explores the challenges of designing AI chatbots. Drawing on lessons from the intersection of the sciences and the humanities, DJ shares three principles for training artificial intelligence to deliver personalized customer experiences.

Summoning the Ghost in the Machine: Intro to Prompt Engineering and Design
Watch this presentation to learn about prompt engineering, where creativity and ingenuity converge with cutting-edge AI technology to produce mind-blowing outcomes. Prompt engineering is a dynamic and rapidly growing product role that’s accessible to everyone, regardless of your technical background.

Unlocking AI’s Human Potential: Human First, Tech Second
This virtual summit on unlocking AI’s human potential featured our CEO Tracey Zimmerman and Executive Experience Director Tyler Klein together with guest speakers from Ingram Micro, Arizona State University, and Slack.

Our CEO shared her thoughts on the technology and business landscape.

CEO Report: Maximizing Impact and Future-Proofing Your Business in an Ever-Changing World
In the first of her blog post series, Tracey Zimmerman shares what she’s hearing and seeing in the marketplace, including the top factors influencing decisions and areas with the biggest opportunity for organizational impact.

From Chaos to Clarity: The Journey to Modernization
Join Tracey for a dive into digital modernization. Get tips on how to unify fragmented data and unlock hidden insights, to increase flexibility by addressing aging infrastructure, and prepare for the future by expanding interconnectivity in your systems.

Employee Efficiency Accelerators: The Power of Empathy, Automation, and AI
Where should you focus your efforts to boost efficiency? Tracey suggests looking to employee experience design, self-service tools, automation, and AI-human partnership. Most of all, approach every initiative with empathy and consideration for your team members. 

How to Win Big with Your Customer Experience
Explore how to create holistic, personalized experiences built around your customer journeys and preferences. Here, you’ll learn lessons on building brand loyalty, engagement, and community.

As you keep working to create forward-looking, innovative technologies and organizations, these insights can help.

A Mobile Prediction Guide for 2024
This blog post from our Mobile Practice Lead Quinn Thomson examines the current stage and future evolution of the three most common uses of mobile apps.

5-Step Guide to De-Risking Innovation for Maximum ROI and Impact
Do your new ideas stall out because of organizational risk aversion? This ebook can help you go from idea to impact faster than ever before.

The Art of the Possible with Brad Fagan
During this podcast episode, Executive Creative Director Brad Fagan shares strategies and techniques for uncovering new ideas and defining your strategic and product vision.

A Practical Guide to Planning and Prioritizing Your Tech Investments
Are you torn between warring priorities and stakeholders with differing opinions? If so then this step-by-step guide to planning and prioritizing tech investments will get you refocused on your strategic objectives.

Change Management – Creating A Culture of Innovation
In this webinar, two Client Strategy Analysts discuss how to apply change management to support individual innovations and ultimately create a culture where innovation and change are the norm.

Reimagining Your Customer and User Journeys: 10 Essential Tools
If you know your customer journey is lacking but you’re not sure where to start, how to achieve your goals, or test your theories, this ebook reviews which tools can address your needs.

Want our thoughts on another technology or design topic? Get in touch – we’d love to chat!

Training Artificial Intelligence with Real Heart: Legitimize, Confirm, Reinforce

Insights for training AI chatbots

Written by DJ Moody, Client Strategy Analyst at Robots & Pencils

“Alright listen, Sparky…”

My father tends to be laid-back. However, there are clear indicators when he’s getting frustrated. These are so predictable that the whole family knows when a customer experience goes awry. First, he refers to the person as “Buddy”. If the situation doesn’t improve, they become “Sport”. With each step down this path of names, the chances the agent will keep the business drop precipitously. The final moniker is “Sparky”. No one comes back from Sparky.

It’s a familiar experience. A customer service discussion goes poorly. We get frustrated. If it’s bad enough, we decide to spend our money elsewhere. After those conversations, our opinion of the company changes. We blame the business. The same isn’t true with static content. If we can’t find the answer in an instruction manual, we get a little annoyed, but our view of the company rarely shifts. Yet when we talk with a person who doesn’t have the answer, frustration bleeds over into our impression of the company in a much different way. A human failing tells us the company failed. The company doesn’t care. The company is bad.

More rare, but more powerful, is the successful customer service conversation. The one where you feel heard, where the other person takes time to understand your need and works to get it addressed. Even if you don’t get the answer you want, you gain a positive perspective on the company. The experience tells us the company is good; they put resources into their customers. They care about us. Reading helpful documentation doesn’t offer that same gut-level reaction.

It takes a person for something to feel personal. 

Chat-based AI attempts to mimic a conversation with a person. This brings with it many of the benefits of having a human involved. It is an opportunity to show the customer you care and to develop a personal connection. This also opens up a lot of the dangers. It takes a person for something to feel personal, and we are creating a digital facsimile of a person. So the question becomes, how do we make our fake person seem genuinely caring?

Artificial intelligence, real heart

Experiences can be designed, whether on a website, in an app, or with a healthcare provider, sales professional, or customer service agent. The major difference between a digital product experience and a human experience is flexibility. The former we expect to be relatively static. It’s primarily up to us to find the right page or tool. The latter we expect to change based on our actions. If we’re angry we expect a person to show empathy and change their approach. We don’t expect an app to understand us; we do expect that of a person.

As with all programming, what you get from a chat experience depends on what you put into it. We tend to focus on training AI chatbots with the right data. We want them to have the correct answer to any question they might be asked. That might be enough if users interacted with them as they do a static resource. However, we want the benefits of AI accuracy and efficiency with the personal connection of human interaction. Just as the best human communicators have training in both information and interpersonal skills, we need to include the same when training AI.

3 takeaways for training AI chatbots from the intersection of science and the humanities

1. Legitimize the need.

We want customers to know we care. Just like compassionate humans, our chatbots can show this care by simply acknowledging there is a need and a desire to help. We don’t have to promise we can solve the problem, just make it clear we know there is one. If sentiment analysis is available, adding that detail is even better.

Standard – All businessBetter – legitimize the needBest – legitimize with sentiment analysis
What solution do you want?I understand that this is a problem for you and would like to help.I can see that you are frustrated and would like to help.

2. Confirm and clarify.

Great human communicators reflect back to the customer what they understand about a request and ask questions to clarify. Communication is messy and questions clean it up. Our bots need to do the same.

Standard – problem statementBetter – clarifying questionBest – confirm and clarify
I don’t understand.Can you clarify your question for me?I understand you want information about your widget. Can you tell me more about what you are trying to do?

3. Set and reinforce next steps.

One of the more frustrating parts of customer service, for both the consumer and agent, is when a solution is offered but missed steps cause it to fail. We can reduce this likelihood by summarizing the discussion, including all steps, before signing off.

Standard – problem statementBetter – restate the solutionBest – reinforce and confirm understanding
Thank you for your question.Thank you for your question. Remember, your next steps are to turn off the router, wait at least 10 seconds, and turn it back on again.I appreciate your inquiry. To recap, your next steps are to turn off the router, wait at least 10 seconds, and turn it back on again. This will reset the system and help you get back online.
Do you have any questions about those steps, or is there anything else I can help you with today?

Developing and training AI solutions for your customers

These are just a few of the many ways your AI solutions can reflect the care and compassion you have for your customers. In order to fully accomplish our goal of more human interactions between AI and customers, each solution must be carefully considered from all sides. Poor communication can make even the most well-informed agent–human or bot–seem cold and uncaring. Conversely, bad data means even the best-behaved agents will be useless. For truly effective agents, those who can increase both customer knowledge and sentiment, we need to live at the intersection of science and humanity. 

Every team developing a chatbot should include specialists in data science and AI as well as experts in communication, user experience, and customer care. In the case of Robots & Pencils, our Robots handle the code, our Pencils ensure an excellent experience, and our Ampersands bring it all together. To learn more about how Robots & Pencils helps organizations approach AI technology with a human-first approach, check out our AI & data science page or drop us a line at hello@robotsandpencils.com

How to Win Big with Your Customer Experience

It’s all about the customer journey!

In a world where customers are demanding value for every penny and the economy is challenging to say the least (recession? best job market ever? both?!), your edge isn’t just in top-notch products or services. It’s in unforgettable experiences that turn heads and open wallets. Remember this: In today’s fierce market, leading with customer experience isn’t just a good strategy; it’s the golden rule.

Schools, stores, banks, name any type of business — targeted, personalized experiences are central to the success of every online, in-person, or hybrid offering. And personalization can’t happen without truly knowing your customers and users. You have to start with understanding their journeys. Examine everything from their vital tasks, preferences, and pain points to their moments of happiness and delight. Effective personalization and engagement is impossible if you don’t know what your customers are doing or how to meet their needs as they move throughout each day.

To increase engagement, start with…

Providing a holistic journey-driven customer experience

As you look to differentiate your brand, widen your view to consider the whole user journey associated with your offering. You may find overlooked opportunities early or late in the life cycle. At these touchpoints, you may be able to do more to build ongoing (perhaps even lifelong) engagement and advocacy.

To create a stand-out customer experience, some organizations are integrating with other services, offerings, and products — even those from outside organizations. For example, I appreciate that my favorite hotel chain has updated their app so that in addition to accessing hotel services, I can use their app to find nearby restaurants, book a reservation, and schedule an Uber pick-up to get them there. Is it that hard to copy and paste into the Uber app? Of course not. But, when on the go, these little conveniences inspire disproportionate gratitude and brand loyalty. Financial transactions are another place I see companies use this tactic, offering products that enable easy options like buy now, pay later at the point of purchase.

As you work to create holistic, frictionless user journeys, team and departmental silos inside of organizations often slow change makers like you down. Beyond trying to break down those barriers, you can also look to build (or buy) a digital experience layer that wraps around organizational silos and their disparate systems, such as providing single sign on and a consistent but personalized customer experience.

Adapting to new customer preferences

Everywhere I look, customer preferences and expectations are evolving. Chief among these changes is that customers expect products and services to be accessible whenever and wherever they want them. This goes beyond simple mobile and digital offerings. “Buy online, pick up in store” has become table stakes. Now, the point of purchase / point of sale is moving towards the customer’s house, whether through virtual consultations and support, Uber eats delivery, or in-home health care concierge services.

I’m also seeing growing demand from consumers to manage their own relationships with businesses and schools. In many ways, increasing self-service can be a win for all. Customers get what they want, and organizations can cut IVR/customer support costs and free up staff to focus on higher-level problems.

Personalizing products and services

As mentioned earlier, one-size-fits-all products and services no longer cut it in education, retail, healthcare, or anywhere. Customers seek unique products and personalized offerings. Of course, you’ll need to balance new feature development with cost. The choices you make here must be driven by the customer. Increasing personalization usually also requires selecting and investing in new (often automated and/or intelligent) technologies and configuration tools. This in turn requires developing and launching new policies. To ensure they’re maximizing and accelerating ROI, many organizations are looking to outside technology consultants and change management experts like my team at Robots & Pencils for guidance on these strategic decisions.

Strengthening relationships through content & communication

Outstanding content and timely communications are another way to build brand loyalty, engagement, and community. The first step in creating this content is understanding what info users need. You also want to get clear on when and how to present it during their journey to catch their attention. The final part is figuring out how to deliver this content at scale while maintaining personalization and localization. Automation and data and system integration will be a key focus of any project in this space. This data capture also helps to enable the adoption of new AI solutions that are creating huge impact throughout the organizations embracing them.

Want to talk more about the customer experience? Join us as we explore all of today’s top business and tech trends!

Request an invite to an upcoming Digital Trends Executive Roundtable, where innovators and industry leaders will join together to discuss their biggest priorities and challenges!

—PS: You may have noticed that this blog echoes my recent post about employee experience and efficiency. That’s intentional! I see massive overlap in consumers and employees looking for easy-to-use tech that meets their needs exactly when and where they arise. The companies that will excel most are the ones that care about both the employee AND customer experience.

This CEO report was written by Tracey Zimmerman, President & CEO of Robots & Pencils.

How to Drive Innovation With User-Centered Design and Agile Development

Perhaps this story is familiar to you…

Your team has been tasked with designing and building a groundbreaking software product that focuses on putting the end user — the person who will use the product — at the center of the design and development process. The stakeholders want it delivered within 12 months.

Six months into the project, the hunger for innovative, user-centered features seems to wane.

The delivery team adopts a rapid agile cadence that values predictable delivery dates and velocity rather than experimentation to find the best solution for the user.

The design team attempts to get ahead of development in order to ensure user insights lead the build of new features. Unfortunately, priorities shift after each deployment, and much of that work gets thrown away.

Over time, a chasm forms between user-centered advocates and delivery. Their ideas are just too risky and unpredictable for the mission: get the next release out the door.

An all too familiar tale, but with an ending we can change. I think there is a way to get the most out of the user-centered design and Agile processes while keeping to budgets, timelines, and a consistent delivery cycles.

First, though, why is this tale all too familiar?

A bias towards reliability and predictability

We’re naturally inclined to have a bias towards reliability, predictability and reducing risk. And Agile development does this by design.

The sprint-based nature of Agile development makes its output extremely predictable — yielding releases every couple of weeks. But it works best when requirements are understood upfront and can be accurately estimated.

However, teams often overestimate new features and unfamiliar technical challenges to account for the delivery uncertainty. This results in teams prioritizing the most predictable features over the most innovative ones.

In contrast, user-centered design focuses on the people who will use the software, and how they can easily and efficiently achieve their goals. It leverages primary research — actually getting insights and feedback from future users — to discover previously unknown friction points in the user experience. It seeds the invention of new experiences that offer that far better way.

While some of the ideas that come from this process can offer a 10x improvement in the experience, they are also unproven and often unfettered by technical and business process constraints. The discovery-driven nature of the process makes the output impossible to predict.

An incompatible match

The issue is that user-centered design and Agile development are incompatible.

  • User-centered design aims for maximal astonishment — let’s see if our users can tell us something we didn’t know.
  • Agile aims for minimal astonishment — let’s have as few surprises in our development process as possible.

To steal a concept from physics, user-centered design prioritizes voltage — a measure of potential energy. Agile development prioritizes amperage — a measure of the flow of current.

And in the same way that you wouldn’t want to plug your TV into a high-voltage power line, the friction between Agile and user-centered design comes when you directly connect the two methodologies.

While the results might be less spectacular than an exploding TV, the failures are just as predictable:

  • Innovative ideas lag development timelines and create project delays.
  • Innovative ideas get chopped in favor of timelines.
  • Through long hours, a talented team squeezes in a couple of extra features deemed “top priority.”

In all three cases, the drive for innovation eventually wanes:

  • Unmet delivery promises undermine organizational and investor trust in the team’s ability.
  • Continuous cutting of new ideas demoralizes the team into a “good enough” mentality and opens up questions about the ROI of exploring innovative ideas to begin with.
  • Unsustainable hours create organizational churn and the talent carrying the greatest load walk out the door.

Still in order to successfully invent new user-centered solutions AND deliver them, we need the strength of both. We need a way to convert the high potential energy output of user-centered design into the high current that the Agile process demands.

Treat user-centered design as investigation, not validation

User-centered design is a process that requires a lack of preconceptions and an open mind. The goal is to understand the root causes of user behavior in order to formulate a new, better approach. Keeping a hypothetical solution in mind through the process creates a cycle that reinforces our original assumptions and often blinds us to other opportunities.

So, when a request comes in to “redesign an app,” start by abstracting that request into the underlying goals that the user accomplishes while using the app. Then, use primary research to validate that those goals are real and dig into how they are accomplished today. You may learn that users don’t care about what you think they do. You might also learn that an app isn’t even the right enabler for their goal.

At the end of this process, you will get a list of things to build that will improve the user’s experience. They just might not be the ones you expected.

Only feed de-risked features into the Agile process

In order to keep the Agile delivery process moving efficiently, ensure that any proposed features/stories are well understood both in terms of their requirements as well as their technical complexity.

sprint estimation and planning diagram

Before ever estimating a feature, you should know:

  1. That implementing the feature will generally increase user perception of the experience
  2. The way to solve any key technical or data hurdles
  3. Confidently, how long the feature will take to build

If a feature doesn’t meet all of those criteria, then it could easily derail the predictability that is the key benefit of Agile development.

De-risking features enables teams to estimate without fear because the basic how of implementation is already well understood.

Use experimentation to connect user-centered design and Agile

The un-vetted output of user-centered design makes it a poor input into an Agile process that works best with low risk requirements. To bridge the two, we need an intermediary process that takes fledgling ideas and systematically de-risks, prioritizes and roadmaps them at a program level.

This middle phase — experimentation — acts as the glue.

user-centered design and experimentation process diagram

Prototype, test and rapidly iterate on proof of concepts (POCs) with users to ensure that your features will have the desired impact on the user experience. These experiments provide a view into the potential ROI. By providing a clearer picture into the new experience, they also can generate investment interest at the executive level.

Similarly, technology experiments (often referred to as technical design spikes) can be used to de-risk complex technical and data problems. In this phase, the priority is not delivering a minimum viable product. Instead, the goal is taking the riskiest assumption and exploring the solution space.

At the end of experimentation, these pre-vetted features can be fully story-mapped and prioritized for delivery — the perfect input to the Agile delivery phase.

Run all three phases concurrently as an innovation program

While the experimentation phase ensures compatibility between user-centered design and Agile, it is important to note that these methods run at different speeds.

  • User-centered design takes a long time to conduct, but yields a high volume of opportunities.
  • Experimentation can be done quickly but the output may or may not produce viable results.
  • Agile generates small chunks of production-ready functionality at a regular pace.
User-centered design and innovation program diagram

To keep all processes operating at full speed, allow each of these phases to run independently and concurrently over time. Each phase generates a queue of work for the next. User-entered design creates a queue of experiments. At the same time, experimentation creates a queue of user-vetted, de-risked features for implementation.

With a never-ending list of to-dos in all three work streams, the program will operate at full efficiency. And innovative, user-centered features will flow like clockwork into your products and experiences.

Tyler Klein is the Executive Experience Director at Robots and Pencils. Physics major turned HCI specialist, he uses what’s new to build what’s next and offers far better ways to interact with the world around us. Special thanks to Chris Chew, Jamie Reid, Mike Greening, Reid Sheppard and Aaron Slepecky for their contributions.

How ASU Achieved a Harmonious Student Experience With Slack Integrations

Arizona State University (ASU) is always looking for a way to better engage students.

“It’s our mission to help Sun Devils feel more connected to each other and the diversity of opportunities around them,” says CIO, Lev Gonick. “Slack has been a connective tissue across ASU, enabling deeper discussions and greater productivity in both formal and informal spaces.”

They have gone all in with Slack as their digital campus solution and this blog post is here to tell you all about it so that you have key takeaways to apply to your own institution.

A Brief Background on ASU

ASU has multiple campuses, along with thousands of online students who are located all over the country and the world. ASU has been recognized by US News & World Report as the country’s most innovative school and prides itself on graduating more than 27,000 thinkers and innovators each year.

Since so many of their students are enrolled digitally, ASU is constantly looking for better ways to engage their students online. Engagement is especially important during enrollment and the onboarding of new students.

Knowing that innovation is the backbone of success, ASU knew they needed a technical solution to step in and improve how they communicate with students.

ASU’s Previous Student/Success Coach Process

ASU aimed to streamline their process for admitting and enrolling students as well as keeping them engaged and successful throughout their school year.

They have a student network where they set new students up for success and also provide a way for students to network with each other. ASU really wanted to build a sense of community at their universities.

A lot of work went into keeping students engaged especially because ASU’s students are all over the country, not just in Arizona. Networking and engagement relies more on digital workflows than a lot of other schools.

The previous platform relied on Facebook authentication, but Facebook is dwindling in usage for the college demographic so this became problematic.

Why ASU Decided to Work With Robots & Pencils

ASU and Robots & Pencils started the initiative in 2019 after getting fed up with the complicated way of communicating with their students.

To avoid relying on Facebook or other social networks, ASU wanted to find a way to use their own single sign on technology to communicate with students.

In February of 2020, after some beta testing, ASU’s new program launched, utilizing Slack as the communication hub and cutting down on all of the digital clutter from their old workflows.

Robots & Pencils not only was willing to create a tailored solution for ASU but they also helped re-imagine their workflows. Companies find that they need a healthy balance of technical and creative so Robots & Pencils often creates solutions but doesn’t stop there — we also help with the visual and planning aspects of implementing something new.

Slack wasn’t designed to be a social network or a student portal, so ASU needed a partner like Robots & Pencils to customize Slack and tailor it to their needs in order to create a space that was useful and accessible to their students.

The Digital Solution

Robots & Pencils implemented a streamlined way for ASU to connect students with other students and stay engaged throughout their college career.

Broken down by channels in Slack, Robots & Pencils helped ASU create spaces for students characterized by student type, campus and college groups.

In June of 2020, Robots & Pencils implemented a Slack bot that helped with the onboarding process and cut down the amount of manual labor that was going on to get students signed up and engaged in the portal. It also automatically puts students into the right channels and simplifies moderation within the community.

The Slack bot keeps onboarding organized and automated so it has resulted in a lot of time savings for ASU staff and eliminated frustrations for the students. The bot also allows ASU employees to message students based on student type, major, and other traits so the communication process has gotten a lot easier. Student Success Coaches can even quickly look up information about each student so that they provide learners with better, more personalized support.

How Slack Integrations Transformed ASU’s Student Success

Once ASU transitioned to Slack in 2019, they were able to streamline their student engagement and instead of using 4 tools, they consolidated everything into Slack.

Once the new Slack processes were created, ASU saw the amount of active students in their portal jump from 8,000 a year to 15,000 a year, showing that students have been responding well to these new workflows.

What Does This Example of Digital Transformation Mean for My Brand?

As this example shows, there is always a better way to do things when you have the right technology partner. If you think parts of your process are too time consuming or you rely on too much manual labor, there is definitely a solution out there for you.

Slack doesn’t have to be just for internal communications; when structured properly, it can be a communication hub if you’re willing to think outside the box.

What areas of your external and internal workflows could be improved? We’d love to have a great chat with you about it in the comments below!