How to be human

Jennifer Bost
Sep 30, 2017 · 3 min read

Sounding normal at Microsoft.

“Microsoft’s brand voice, above all, is simple and human,” Anna Gregory, Principal Voice Strategist, announces to a room full of Microsoft Office UX designers and program managers.

“What do you mean by human?”, an inquisitive PM asks.

As part of an engineering-focused company, I’m surrounded by people who love to solve problems. Who love finding answers. Who want to measure everything. Who want to do more, better. Who might take things a bit too literally, sometimes.

They like to challenge me — “Where’s your proof?”, “Which word performs better?”

“What do you mean by human?”

Bless them.

Science meet art

The world has become data-obsessed. From health and fitness to work performance, we’re tracking and using our data like never before.

And it hasn’t stopped there. Over the past few years, we’ve seen an uptick in “data-driven” and “data-obsessed” job descriptions spanning engineering to marketing to brand.

Numbers feel safe, and we can’t get enough of them.

Engineers live by numbers. Their days are spent thinking through problems — logically, rationally, and efficiently. It’s their superpower.

Conversely, creative work requires dialing up our sensitivity and empathy. The touchy-feely stuff that’s sometimes hard to qualify. But you know it when you see it.

But how do you measure emotion? How do you measure customer love?

Corporate meet culture

Two years ago, Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, said it best, “Customer love is a better sign of success than revenue or profit.”

We know that focusing on ROI is a short-term view on a long-term relationship. And we’re looking to capture hearts and minds here. That means shifting our perspective, our priorities, and how we think.

Yes, we can be data-obsessed. But we must also obsess over how we impact peoples’ lives and how we make them feel.

And it’s only through understanding people’s feelings and pain points that we can design truly revolutionary experiences.

So, how does creative work happen inside a data-driven organization?

Let’s talk about this tug-of-war between data and intuition.

Heart meet soul

Why are you in business? What’s your purpose? What’s your point-of-view? Who are you for?

Simple questions that are easy to avoid. But this is the true heavy lifting of creative work — soul searching.

If you rely on data to tell you who you are, you’re no better than a politician whose vote blows with the wind. You’re not authentic. And you’ll never understand what sets you apart. You’ll never hear your voice rise above the crowd. You might impact peoples’ lives, but will they love you for it?

No, to craft a manifesto, design a brand identity, and give voice to your brand, you must set aside the data. It can’t help you here.

Data meet design

We want to know you. And we want to help you.

We want to work on your behalf, not for the numbers.

We want to do good work.

After we understand who we’re for, and what people need, then we design. Then, only then, do we start collecting “big” data and analyzing it.

We have many listening channels, and compiling the data helps us spot issues and trends. Good stuff, that.

But let’s be honest, data science isn’t an exact science…yet.

Spending too much time iterating on designs comes at a cost. When you’re constantly looking at the weeds, you’re not looking up at the stars. You’re not making progress toward your bigger strategy.

Is it worth wearing out your creative team’s energy? Can you sustain the right talent on the same diet day-in and day-out?

Is that extra decimal point (e.g. 0.03% increase in clicks) really improving the customer experience?

Or is it giving us a false sense of security?

Let’s be more human

We need to make decisions that are in the customers best interest, not ours. And if we’re obsessed with reporting our hourly, weekly, monthly click-rates, impressions, etc., then we’re not. We’re motivated by the numbers.

When we focus on numbers, we lose sight of the people they represent. We disconnect from what makes those people real: their hopes, their dreams, their struggles.

Be for hope. Be for dreams.

Jennifer Bost

Written by

Writer + Strategist @ Microsoft. Bringing ideas to life. Putting words to work.

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