Goldilocks Goes Digital

After proposing the EIEI-O approach to experience engineering, and now finding myself writing about Goldilocks, I will be awarding no prizes for guessing that I am a parent of young children. People respond to parenthood in different ways - it seems my response has been to borrow metaphors from nursery rhymes and fairy tales in order to deliver overwrought business analogies. With that in mind… if you’re sitting comfortably we shall begin…

Once upon a time, we were told that software was eating the world. However, some parts have been easier to digest than others. And just like a greasy kebab on a Friday night, there are some bites we’re bound to wish we hadn’t bothered taking. The appropriate extent of digitisation is easier to gauge in some contexts than others but it’s important to our users, like Goldilocks, that we get it just right. Unfortunately, for us there are a few problems in our way.

Some problems are hot porridge problems. You’ll remember that Goldilocks found Daddy Bear’s porridge too hot, Mummy Bear’s porridge too cold, and Baby Bear’s porridge just right.

How hot a bowl of porridge is, is largely a question of timing. When is the right time to eat a bear’s porridge? The difficult truth for both us and Goldilocks is that most of the time, it’s the wrong time. If Goldilocks had arrived minutes earlier perhaps Mummy Bear’s porridge would have been just right, and Baby bear’s porridge would have been discarded along with Daddy Bear’s as too hot. But if she’d arrived 30 million years earlier, bears wouldn’t have even evolved yet. Like I said, most of the time, it’s the wrong time.

F'd vs Unicorn

But what’s this got to do with digitisation? Well, it turns out timing matters a lot here too. Philip Kaplan had a website called F***** and he wrote a book on the same topic, where he detailed some of the most spectacular dot-com failures. Now is a really good time to revisit this book because many of the companies listed weren’t terrible ideas but rather, were badly timed with a lack of infrastructure, for example, hampering user-adoption. Think HitPlay Media vs Netflix or Lipstream vs Skype. HitPlay Media launched in 1999, Netflix started video streaming in 2007. Lipstream launched in 1998, Skype launched in 2003. In terms of the evolutionary history of bears that’s but a blink of an eye. In terms of getting digitisation just right - it’s everything. Or… almost everything.

Because not all problems are porridge problems. Some seem more like hard bed problems. When it comes to digitisation, bed problems make the tricky issue of “when” seem trivial. Because there are experiences like sleeping in a bed that draw their value from intrinsically physical variables - like softness. These are physical experiences with inherent barriers to digitisation. This is not to say you can’t add value to these experiences but regardless of what time it is - you can’t code a hard bed soft.

This is a neat analogy for the veterinary sector. You can’t upload a patient, canine or otherwise to the cloud - no matter how much Fluffy might look like one. And the experience of owning a pet is intrinsically a physical one.

Pleo Dinosaur

No problem, you might say, we can create you an all-singing, all-dancing pet robotic dinosaur. He’ll mimic much of the physical experience of owning a pet. You can tickle him on his chin touch sensor, he’ll feel you stroking him in his force feedback sensors, hear you with his binaural microphones and fall asleep to you gently rocking him detected via his tilt and shake sensors. And the best part is you don’t need to walk him or feed him. He’ll never get sick and there’s no danger that he’ll pee on your Anatolian rug. Anyone ever heard of Pleo? Do you have one? Nope. And yet, over 50% of all households own a needy, sickness-prone, defecation factory, also known as a pet. There’s something intrinsic to picking up the faeces of another species that we find therapeutic. In other words, part of the value of owning a pet comes in the effort we put into looking after them - and it is a mistake to seek to use technology to eliminate that.

When you get to thinking about bed problems - they’re not unique to the pet care sector, or the health care sector - it crops up more often than you might think. Digitisation can be an amazing tool in reducing customer effort. But sometimes if you eliminate customer effort altogether you also eliminate the customer. Just as Pleo is no threat to pet ownership, ToughMudder would not improve ticket sales by rebranding themselves EasyMudder. 

Easy mudder

That said, clearly not all effort is created equal - a laborious user registration experience, for example, is unlikely to be an area where effort equates to value. No one’s going to get to the end of an overly long sign-up form feeling grateful to us for the warm glow of pride they feel in their achievement. 

So, we’re left in a position, where we have to very carefully tease apart - what elements of owning a pet are effortful but value additive, and which parts are effortful but value-erosive - the latter is where we will find our ripest opportunities.

Goldilocks Customer Effort Value

And one useful way to do this teasing apart, is to map each touchpoint of the existing user journey along a customer corridor. Above I’ve done that for Goldilocks. And below I’ve done that for a generic veterinary visit.

Customer Effort Value

An owner identifies a problem, finds a vet to visit, books an appointment with them, travels to the clinic, checks in at reception, waits in the waiting room, maybe has a nurse check over the animal before proceeding to a veterinary consultation, where they decide on next steps. The owner then pays at reception, and hopefully the vet follows-up on the issue. 

While we can’t turn pets into robotic dinosaurs, there are clearly plenty of opportunities for digitisation here. From the initial discovery process and appointment booking to payment and follow-up.

And this stepwise approach, with digitisation extending it’s reach along the customer corridor, touchpoint by touchpoint, can turn what seemed to be a hard bed problem - an intractable barrier to digitisation- into a series of hot porridge problems - a matter of timing.

And taking our porridge to bed can even help address the fact that most the time it’s the wrong time. It strikes me that this is what Netflix did. HitPlay Media was founded in 1999 with the same mission as Netflix, to make video streaming a reality. HitPlay Media failed. And yet… Netflix was founded 2 years earlier and succeeded. The failure of HitPlay Media led Blockbuster executives and others to miscategorise the home video entertainment experience as a bed problem, with them famously passing on the opportunity to acquire Netflix for USD 50 million. However, while HitPlay Media were making their bed and lying in it - Netflix instead saw the same apparent bed problem as a series of porridge problems, and used this insight to take a bite by bite approach to digitisation - starting with mailing out DVDs and working their way towards 120 million people streaming video content worldwide.

And we’ve made some progress on this in the veterinary sector with most clinics now accepting they need to engage with the internet, and many more vets are engaging with the full range of email, SMS and push notifications for client follow-up and reminders.

But broadly the experience architecture still looks the same for different owners of different pets with different issues. 

Lump in fur

I’ve had owners go through all of that because they thought they found a worrying lump on their pet’s body, only to have me tell them that this is one of their cat’s nipples. But he’s a male cat they said. Yes, that’s right I said, subconsciously looking down at my own chest. Ah, they said, already struggling to bundle their cat back into it’s basket. It helps if you reverse them in. Needless to say this effortful experience wasn’t particularly value additive to the experience of pet ownership. 

On the flipside, I’ve had owner bring in pets far too late in the disease course because of the stress, effort and practicality of bringing their sick pet in sooner - me telling them it’s too late isn’t value additive either.

What if the real digitisation opportunity here is in providing mechanisms for filtering and personalising the pet care experience for each pet and each owner, and even each vet - rather than slinging them down the same customer corridor, the same physical experience as everyone else? Ma Yun (Founder of Alibaba), in proposing his New Retail concept, has suggested that “the boundary between offline and online commerce disappears as we focus on fulfilling the personalised needs of each customer.”

Customer needs

And so we should seek to travel from a single generic customer corridor for everyone. To multiple corridors with tailored touchpoints. This is not just digital augmentation but also digital curation of personalised physical services.

And this is what PetsApp seeks to achieve.

At PetsApp we believe in the strength of the human-animal bond, and we believe that - deployed correctly - technology can help enhance that bond. 

Our telemedicine platform enables veterinary clinics to offer remote consultations to pet owners. Because playing Russian roulette with whether your pet needs to be physically seen by a vet is not value additive to the experience of pet ownership. 

We do not believe that virtual consultations will replace physical consultations - instead we believe this digitial product will curate and augment the physical services that already exist, providing a low effort access point to veterinary expertise that competes with Dr Google or “hoping for the best” - and helps determine what the best combination of digital and physical experiences will look like for you and your pet. The Veterinary Innovation Council estimates there are 2.2 billion unserved pet issues each year in the USA alone - digitisation helps address that. It’s not about uploading the pet to the cloud but rather putting the pet front-and-centre of a mobile-first health care experience that proactively engages pet owners in the care of their animal in a manner that is maximally relevant to them - in other words, in a way that feels just right.

But veterinary video consults are just the first step of our journey. And along the way we are bound to encounter a third type of problem. Chair problems. Yes, there’s one part of Goldilocks’s journey that I missed out and that’s the chair. You’ll remember that Daddy and Mummy Bears’ chairs are too big but no sooner has Goldilock’s declared Baby Bear’s chair just right than it… Breaks! And sometimes despite our best efforts user experiences can go awry in exactly the same way.

And part of the problem is that as experience engineers we are shooting at a moving target. I think Jeff Bezos puts it best:

“One thing I love about customers is that they are divinely discontent. Their expectations are never static - they go up. It’s human nature. We didn’t ascend from our hunter-gatherer days by being satisfied. People have a voracious appetite for a better way, and yesterday’s ‘wow’ quickly becomes today’s ‘ordinary’”.

In other words - “just right” can very quickly become “just meh” or worse.

But some businesses seem to find it easier to respond to changing customer needs than others. And here I want to talk to you about cats and dogs.


Dogs are more mutable than cats. That is to say, they are more likely to mutate. They started as wolves but became Great Danes, Chihuahuas and everything in between. Cats can have slightly pointier faces or flatter faces. Long hair, short hair or no hair. But they’re always and indelibly cats.

It turns out there’s a reason for this. Dogs have slippery DNA sequences which give rise to errors of replication leading to a higher rate of germline mutations (Laidlaw et al. 2007), making them - as a population - more adaptable to the different selection pressures we might throw at them.

Given this mutability, would you rather operate a business where A) you have dogs but all your customers want cats or one where B) you have cats but all your customers want dogs?

Vote now. Hands up for A. Hands up for B.

That’s right - A, the dogs. Clearly, the mutability gives you the ability to meet your changing customer needs.

And while we can’t imbue the DNA of our business with single base repeat sequences, we can use digitisation to help install a level of mutability within your organisation, making you more responsive to changing customer needs. Such that when ‘just right’ becomes ‘just meh’ or worse - you can immediately take corrective actions.

At the end of the Goldilocks story the bears find her fast asleep. For those of you who have similarly fallen victim to the comfort of a just-right chair - here’s the too long; didn’t read (tl;dr) version.

T is for Timing - and we’ve spoken about what Netflix did and what HitPlay Media failed to do to account for the fact that most of the time it’s the wrong time.

L is for Laziness because digitisation can be a powerful tool in reducing customer effort. Ma Yun once challenged Thomas Edison’s idea that genius is 99% perspiration, instead suggesting that: “lazy people create history.” By naturally creating path-of-least-resistance ways of doing things.

But beware - your laziness needs to be qualified with D for discernment. Some aspects of customer effort are value additive - do not spend time erroneously solving for these.

And finally, R is for responsiveness, and how digitisation through enabling rapid iteration imbues mutability, which allows us to evolve alongside changing customer needs.

It’s my hope that if we do all of that, we will deliver fairytale experiences to our users, so we can all live happily ever after.

This talk was first delivered at YLD Innovate. YLD is a software engineering and design consultancy with expertise in digital transformation.

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