Speaker Interview: Alexander Genov

Alex Genov Photo (1)

Alexander Genov
Head of UX Research and Web Analytics


Marni Edelhart
Director Content & Experience


Marni: Hi this is Marni Edelhart, Director of Content and Experience for the Direct Marketing Association’s 2016 Marketing Analytics Conference. I am on the line with Alexander Genov, Head of UX Research and Web Analytics for Zappos. Alex leads UX Research and Web Analytics for the Zappos Family of Companies. In previous positions, he was responsible for research and usability of the products and services for companies like TurboTax, State Farm Insurance, and the Active Network. He has over 15 years of relevant experience, 5 years of academic research and over 10 years of customer research in the software industry.

Alex received his PhD in Experimental Social Psychology from Clark University. His areas of research include: defining and measuring emotions, individual differences, usability, and consumer segmentation. His professional goal is to help teams create remarkable products and services that make people’s lives easier and more enjoyable. Hi Alex.

Alex: Hi Marni.

Marni: Thanks for being with us today.

Alex: Thank you for having me. It’s my pleasure.

Marni: I want to start with looking at your role specifically. It involves both UX Research and Web Analytics. Could you tell us a little bit about how UX relates to consumer insights?

Alex: Absolutely, Marni, it’s a wonderful question. User experience or UX is a very broad term. It’s my understanding that it involves UX design. It involves content. It involves research and other disciplines. In this conversation, I will share my thoughts about the UX research aspect of UX and in the past couple of years, I’ve been on a mission to break down the artificial, and I would say harmful, silos between user research and usability versus market research versus consumer insights and web analytics.
people 1st
In my view, we should all focus on understanding the consumer or the customer as a person first and foremost and not just as a number, be it a conversion number or segment or wallet size or any specific demographic number. If you take that view, you realize that the tools and methods for understanding people are different. For example, UX Research involves different sets of tools and methodologies; web analytics involves another set; but the underlying goal is the same. In the sense that UX Research and Analytics have the same basic foundation, but just different tools and methods.

Marni: It’s an interesting way to think about it. I want to talk a little bit about emotions because I know that you really factor emotions into how you look at your customers and your analytics. It seems like something that would be pretty tough to quantify. How are you using analytics to understand your customers’ emotions and how does that understanding impact your strategy?

Alex: You are absolutely right. Conceptualizing emotions and measuring them is a tricky thing. Personally, my academic background is in how we understand and measure emotions. And so I bring a lot of that to my practical work and the work that I’ve been doing for so many years in the corporate world. I would start by saying that emotions are not one thing, emotions are a collection of human behaviors and internal states.
puzzle piece emotionsFor example, emotions are the facial expressions we make.  When we experience emotions, overt behaviors like laughing, crying, running. Also physiological reactions, for example perspiration, heart rate, blood pressure and also what we traditionally think of emotions is how we talk about it or self-report of how we feel, like stating that we are anxious or happy. What we need to do is measure as many of these aspects of emotions as possible and then put all the findings together just like pieces of a puzzle and make conclusions only when the picture is as complete as possible.

I will give you some examples of measuring emotions in addition to the traditional self-reporting method, as in with questionnaires. We have at our disposal now eye-tracking, so we can actually see where people are looking for certain interfaces or store aisles so we cannot claim that something triggered an emotion if the person didn’t notice it or even look at it.

Another really cool new development, very new, is the automatic detection and measurement and classification of facial expressions of emotion. I have been collaborating with companies that do that for a while now. One such company called Affectiva was a spin-off from the MIT Media Lab. They have some really cool technology; they can detect your facial expression through the web camera on the computer and basically classify it into several emotional states. This technique, for example, has been applied to the advertising industry and a whole lot of other applications.

And then we have the traditional survey responses where, again, it’s not as simple as just asking people how they feel; there are dbrain activity (1)irect ways of asking and indirect ways of asking.

In the past, I’ve used for example emoticons for people to indicate how they feel versus just writing scales. Another new and exciting technology and innovation in that respect is measuring brain activity through EEG (electro encephalogram)and then making conclusions based on that. But the basic point is you cannot just measure one of these things and then claim that you are measuring emotions reliably. You need to combine as many of these metrics into one full picture as possible.

In terms of Zappos’ strategy, it has always been to make customers happy. I mean that’s the impetus for Zappos existing to make customers happy, to make employees happy and to evoke positive emotions. In that respect, emotion research is just supporting that strategy, and providing more insight into what makes people feel in certain ways.

Marni: I think the process for figuring out someone’s emotions sounds as complicated as emotions themselves are. Speaking of Zappos, I am curious about how the unique internal structure of Zappos impacts your customer-first approach?

Alex: Absolutely. Zappos has been using a new management structure for 2-3 years now, called Holacracy. It is basically a way of letting people self-organize. Self-organization is a new kind of organizational management approach where people self-organiza around the work and not around an org chart. And it actually empowers and fuels our customer-first approach because it breaks down silos and let’s every employee  do what’s best for the customer.
I will give you an example. Zappos has had first grade customer service for many, many years now. The Zappos customer service has no scripts, no call time limits, and every single Customer Service employee is empowered to resolve the issue in a way that they see fit – they don’t have to escalate, they don’t have to ask a supervisor or ask people to hold. They do anything to make the customer happy.

In terms of the research aspect and the research silos that I spoke about, essentially there’s no org chart for Zappos now. Self-organization is about organizing around the work. And so now, as a research community, we kind of organize around certain projects and then get them done. I don’t have to worry about being able to do market research because technically I am in the user research group. That’s kind of an example of how organizational structure supports this new way of thinking of work across silos.

Marni: Got it. So you basically, you don’t have to limit how you can help a customer based on what your title or your role is?

Alex: Exactly. And so in our organization as you may have very well defined marketing group with a market research arm and then a separate product group with product research arm. And then because of the org chart and because of essentially corporate politics, separate budgets and so on, you know many times groups are known to collaborate and talk. And then marketing will run a big segmentation survey and spend all the resources but then the user research or design group cannot benefit from the questions or the answers because they were not asked in a way that can help product decisions for example. What self-organization helps with is to bring everybody to the table initially and then plan a rigorous study and then inform all the interested stakeholders.

Marni: So speaking of making decisions, as someone who works a lot with data and analytics, when do you think it is a good idea to go against the data in front of you and make decisions based on your instincts in order to better serve the customer?
decision making 3
Alex: Well, that’s a pretty deep philosophical question, it’s a great question. I would say it’s never a matter of going with or against the data.  UX practitioners, including researchers, should develop a deep understanding of the business. When we do research and design our business environment, we serve the business essentially. And when business decisions are made there are several components that go into them. One is company culture, so core company values. For example, Apple they would say quality is first and foremost, impeccable quality, and they probably don’t collect data to support that the product quality leads to their business success.

Another aspect is economic, the economic strategy. The economics of the business decisions, cost benefits and so on. Another source of information is social economic technology trends. And also I would say tribal company knowledge, what you would call intuition. And intuition is usually people who have been there for a while, experienced people that have a lot of knowledge or context, so we call it intuition right. We look back to our kind of histories to draw these kind of conclusions and make decisions.

customer (1)And last but not least I would say data. When you see everything together, you can make a complete decision. Nowadays they keep talking about data-driven decisions. I would say data-informed decisions is a better term. Because that is just one of those inputs. It’s most helpful when it debunks myths. For example a company has had those for a long time. Sometimes they can’t listen to have group-think because of that. And some kind of folklore of the company. It kind of perpetuates itself and goes on and on. And when you look at things with a fresh set of eyes and you do research the right way in a valid and a reliable way then you may debunk some of those potential misconceptions.

Marni: What single step would you recommend other brands take, to begin on the path meaningful personalization for their customers?

Alex: Sure. I would say one single step and single focus would be understanding customers as people first and not as shoppers, website visitors, callers to the customer service, because if you kind of take this holistic view of working across no-silos across the organization, you understand that, basically you realize that you are serving the same person. Then it’s the same person to call to customer service, same person who went on the website, same person who purchased or not, it’s the same person and it’s really beneficial to understand customers as people with their emotions, their needs, all of that. You will be able to serve them much better; you will be able to inform the organization, in a much more holistic way. 

Marni: Well, Alex, after speaking with you I am even more excited for your session at the 2016 Marketing Analytics Conference taking place this June 23rd and 24th in Austin, Texas. You have so much value to share. 

Alex: Thank you Marni. I am super excited to be there. It looks like a fantastic event. I can’t wait.