Handle With Carewords: The Gerry McGovern Interview

Gerry McGovern is the author of five books on how the web has facilitated the rise of customer power, and is the founder and CEO of Customer Carewords which helps organizations including Microsoft, Cisco, Google, and IBM, become more customer-centric on the web. We sat down with Gerry prior to his upcoming appearances at An Event Apart DC and An Event Apart Chicago to talk about design, usability, and metrics.

How and where did you get your start in design, web or otherwise?

It was back in the early Nineties and I was doing freelance journalism—an exercise in slow starvation, even back then! I was based in Dublin, doing an article about the best available resources for researchers, and someone told me, “You should check out this web thing.” And even though it was just a Mosaic browser, it was totally amazing. I was sure it was going to change the world. So, with two other friends, we set up a company called Nua. And one thing we tried to do was build an Irish community website. It happened that President Clinton was visiting around then, so we focused on Roslea in Fermanagh, where his ancestors came from. That got a bit of attention. And it was basically scrapping and fighting to get any sort of web design work, which wasn't easy to find in Ireland in 1995, I can tell you. But in 1996 we won the award for the best overall business website design from the European Union, and things really began to take off—and then we totally crashed in 2001.

What would you say is the most overlooked aspect of web design?

It certainly used to be customer focus, experience, usability. We always tried to make the websites we designed functional, easy-to-use, and focused on customer needs. But the flashy design brigade derided us, called us boring and all that, and they sold a lot more than we did, because organizations just couldn't resist the flash and the ego. It's changing, but I still think today we too frequently overlook the fact that the primary reason a website exists is to be used—not to be gazed at, admired, or wowed by. For most websites, people want to get their task done as quickly and simply as possible. But many organizations still focus far too much on how the site looks, rather than how the site works.

You're head of Customer Carewords, which develops “customer-centric strategies for websites.” Tell us more!

We develop customer research methods and tools that are focused on helping identify what matters most to customers in complex online environments. We have a range of partners in Europe and North America who use our methods to help their clients better understand customer needs. We specialize in the technology industry. Cisco, Microsoft, IBM, Vmware, and Google have used our methods.

You're giving a talk at a couple of our fall events titled “Top Task Management: Making it Easier to Prioritize.” What will attendees take away from your session?

They'll learn about a task identification method that will give them statistically reliable data on what matters most to customers (top tasks) and what matters least (tiny tasks). We've done it more than 400 times, in 24 languages, with over 400,000 people voting, so I've lots of tips and tricks about what works and what doesn't.

They'll also learn about a method for measuring the performance of top tasks. This is what we call an outcome-based metric—one that focuses on the customer's world. It tells you in precise terms how a particular task is performing, what its completion rate is, and how long it's taking to complete. It also informs you as to what are the most important things to do in order to increase completion rates and reduce time on task. It's a metric that you can present to management and say, “Look, things are getting better.”

What excites you most these days?

It's still a wonderful privilege to be involved in the web industry. No matter how many frustrations there are out there, they pale in comparison to the opportunities to do things that make a real and positive difference in people's lives. No medium or tool is inherently good or bad, but I believe that, on balance, the web levels the playing field between customers and organizations. Today, you can do well for yourself and your organization by doing right by the customer. Putting the customer first has never been a better business case.

Gerry will be one of twelve amazing speakers at An Event Apart DC and An Event Apart Chicago.

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