Balancing intuition & convention to create exceptional experiences With Jay Acunzo, Unthinkable.fm founder and former Googler

Exceptional content experiences

Photo credit: 藍川芥 aikawake via Visualhunt

All “tried” and true wisdom. All research frameworks. All blog post headline formulas.

All began life as experiments.

All began as something only one person believed might be true. Then that one person had the cojones to turn their back on everybody, go into the big bad world and test their inkling.

If this lone ranger turned out to be correct, almost everybody else would be content to simply “copy and paste”… unless another lone ranger came along and their experiment revealed something even better.

This is the cycle of progress, across all human endeavours. And when we become averse to experimentation, we stagnate or regress. We eliminate the one process necessary for the creation of something better than the status quo.

Even the process of experimentation has gotten so good only because it has been experimented with.

Importantly, the spark that ignites all experimentation is intuition.

According to the Cambridge English dictionary, “Intuition is an ability to understand or know something immediately, based on your feelings rather than facts.”

That’s right – feelings. Your feelings. Controversial as this stance may seem, science agrees with me.

Part 2 of this series, based on my interview with Jay Acunzo, explores the invaluable role intuition plays when we’re creating exceptional experiences – especially through content.

Listen to part 2 of my chat with Jay – or continue reading the article below

TRANSCRIPT

Timi: I’m gonna move on to creating the content now.

Jay: Okay.

Timi: And on this subject, I feel I have very strong feelings, because I often have to fight with colleagues sometimes. Not so much here actually, which has been a breath of fresh air, but usually I have to fight them. Because there’s this whole battle which you’ve tackled on Unthinkable between intuition and precedent. Which side of the spectrum do you fall on?

Jay: I think they’re both at play. I mean, they have to be. I think if you wanna do something exceptional, by definition, you’re gonna have to move through average. And so to know what to be an exception from is to know the convention. And so you can do a more average work, which is the data size, list articles, drive traffic or that we should search optimize and write a lot of how-to blog posts. Okay. Your intuition comes in when you’re like, “But while the experts do say that, I actually believe that we should host a podcast. Because I had five conversations last month with our customers, and all of them seemed incredibly busy, and overwhelmed, and subscribing to lots of our peers that write that stuff. So how are we gonna differentiate? How are we gonna stand out and be the exception, which is to be exceptional?” Well, you shouldn’t do what the experts say. So now that I’m inserting my own intuition, I think I’m separating from the pack.

So I think you start with the convention always. But then where I think most people turn back, where average contributors turn back, and even where experts turn back is the insertion of the self. I think an expert is somebody who wants to find the absolute right answer, devoid of context. It doesn’t matter if you’re Timi and you live in the UK, if you’re Jay and you live in Boston, if you’re Mary and you live in South America, and you have all three different businesses at three moments and time and three different histories as individuals. Doesn’t matter. Here’s the right way to do that. And I think that’s an okay answer. I’m hesitant to call it total bullshit, but I think it’s close it, because the reality is you can’t remove any of the context. But I think an expert wants that.

So I think the only people that really get too exceptional is that moment of “I’m gonna insert myself here.” So I’ll give you an example. There’s a company in Boston called Drift, and they have messaging software to help you communicate with people on your website. And they recently removed every lead gen form on their website, which is crazy for a lot of B2B software companies who do content. But their insight, their insertion of this self was, “Look, first of all, people do not like lead forms. We are selling to people, okay? So that’s our like first little insight that we have about the human condition.” Then they built this little constraint project to test that inside out. “Let’s remove our forms.”

Now, the insertion of the self is like they have this swagger at Drift. They’re like, “We’re gonna write really loudly about how we did this and it worked. And we’re gonna, like, thumb our noses at everybody following the best practice. And we’re gonna get all this press. And we’re gonna go on all these podcasts. And we’re gonna put that same initial insight treating people like people into everything we do.” You get that through their welcome newsletter. You get that through their podcast. They’ve just put it everywhere now that they’ve tested this little constrain project, after having that insight. So they stepped away from convention in a small way, and now they’ve inserted themselves more fully. So I think, to answer your question, both convention and intuition are at play, but it just happens in that order.

Timi: Okay, because you’ve had, I mean, a pretty glittering career. While you were at Google and HubSpot specifically, because I think those two are places where they’d probably be in a lot of pressure, did you find it easy to balance things as well as you wanted to, as well as you just described here? Or did you feel a push towards one or the other?

Jay: I think the bigger the company, the more your push towards the convention. I just think that’s how it works, because scaling knowledge is so incredibly difficult and mitigating risk. If a person leaves, they leave you vulnerable, because they took with them either knowledge or skill. So you have to kind of have more convention baked in. But, you know, I think that’s why I love startups and that’s why I love being a solo act. It’s because I can constantly find the framework and then break it a lot quicker.

Timi: Okay, and finally again, just to summarize your point of view, do you have any advice about how you make sure you’re balancing intuition and precedent well when you are creating content? Do you have a process you go through? Do you look at, you know, existing articles for a particular topic before you write about it or something like that?

Jay: I don’t look kind of horizontally on what others have already done. I guess what I’m really doing… It’s an interesting question. I haven’t considered that before. I guess what I’m really doing is just kind of leading with that first principle thought. Like, when I distilled content marketing down to what is it supposed to be, that clears the way needing to looking horizontally and sort of like looking straight down. It’s like what is the foundation of all this. And then I could build back up something using my intuition and also pulling from the convention that I understand.

Timi: Okay. So you kind of like go to the nucleus of the matter. So you never lose the core, you never lose the DNA even if you do, you know, come up with something that’s unique based on your intuition.

Jay: Right. Right. I think that’s why being a new entrant into an industry or a job is actually very powerful, because you can come with an outside perspective, and you don’t know any better when you question the convention. Like there’s a great coffee brand now called Death Wish Coffee. And they won a Super Bowl ad in the States. It was crazy. They won an ad against 15,000 small businesses. Theirs got the most of votes from all these rabid fans of this coffee brand, and they profess to be the world’s strongest coffee. All their customers are like truckers and entrepreneurs, like hard-charging individuals.

And as a result of like the way they built their business, they’re standing out, they’re doing something exceptional. But it all started when Mike Brown, the founder, quit being an accountant to move into coffee. Didn’t know that in coffee you’re not supposed to roast what are called Robusta coffee beans. It’s frowned upon. It’s like instant coffee material. He liked that stuff. Turns out he found a blend with those beans to make the strongest coffee “in the world.” So like just by having a little bit of naivety and being willing to actually insert that naivety over a problem and ignore the experts, he’s an exception.


Intuition is the universal human voice that says, “This doesn’t feel right and I can make it better.”

Steve Jobs said, “Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that are no smarter than you… and you can change it… you can influence it… you can build your own things…”

Everything – including the methods and tools you use to evaluate how well existing things work – was made up by people no smarter than you. But just as their feelings pushed them to create the status quo, your feelings can push you to create something better.

Discussing intuition, John Dewey (psychologist and philosopher) explains, “It is not possible deliberately to create ideas or to control their creation. When a difficulty stimulates the mind, suggested solutions just automatically spring into the consciousness.”

In the same article, the great Albert Einstein is quoted as saying:

“There is no logical way to the discovery of these elemental laws. There is only the way of intuition, which is helped by a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance.”

Essentially, your life is like a long, subconscious research exercise – you’re constantly observing and taking in from your environment, whether or not you’re aware of doing so.

As fanatics of good UX, we always advocate putting our ideas through the rigours of user research. Even we’ve written an in-depth guide on how user research enhances the value and performance of content.

But relying solely on insights about how users currently behave can be a hinderance, if your intuition is taking you in a direction which is unprecedented. Research should always play a key role… I’m just not certain it’s always, without exception, the best place to start.

While we’re apt to dismiss our intuition because it carries the risk of cognitive biases, we should remember that it also carries a lifetime of experiences. “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” is the expression that comes to mind.

Intuition is the subconscious voice of your cumulative human experience. And it speaks long before your rational mind can catch up, through time and experimentation.

Here’s how to listen.

Become exceptional by becoming an exception

Stand out exceptional content

“Blending in isn’t always a good idea…” (photo credit: Raspberry Pi)

By now, you can probably tell that when I say exceptional, I mean it literally – as in, something with “one-of-a-kind” quality.

During my interview with Jay, he explains:

 “I think if you wanna do something exceptional, by definition, you’re gonna have to move through average. And so to know what to be an exception from is to know the convention.”

It helps to think of existing conventions as things that bring us closer to an ideal outcome, without themselves representing our ultimate destination.

“Put a number at the beginning of your headlines to get more clicks!” may be helpful advice for newbies… but that doesn’t mean you should start every blog post title with a number, forever and ever, until hell freezes over.

To listen to your intuition, be receptive to how your mind reacts to established conventions.

Conventions represent an intelligent way of starting where those who came before left off – rather than starting from scratch and making the same mistakes they did. But you must always entertain the idea that something better exists.

In this interview with the UX podcast, Don Norman (whose relationship with UX is similar to Neil Armstrong’s with the moon), makes the same point.

Intuition is the jarring in our consciousness between our idea of an ideal world (based on a lifetime of experiences), and the world as it is.

To find out if your intuition has value, turn it into a observable experiment, then see how the world around you reacts.

Story time: removing lead gen forms generated the most leads ever

gated content dangersJay shared the stories of two companies that followed their intuition and won big. And I mean, really big. I’m gonna start off with Drift, a SaaS company that made an unthinkable decision.

 “There’s a company in Boston called Drift, and they have messaging software to help you communicate with people on your website. And they recently removed every lead gen form on their website, which is crazy for a lot of B2B software companies who do content.”

The result? An immeasurably better user experience and huge commercial returns.

The sole article announcing that Drift was removing all lead gen forms… uh… generated more email leads than any other article they’d ever written!

According to Jay, all this began with the bravery to insert some intuition – and the humility to put that intuition to the test.

 “Their insertion of the self was, ‘Look, first of all, people do not like lead forms. We are selling to people, okay?” Then they built this little constraint project to test that inside out. “Let’s remove our forms.”

Homework: follow your intuition and break one “rule”

Find one thing everyone in your industry says should be done in a certain way, with which you never felt comfortable.

Then follow your intuition and test out an approach that you feel might lead to a better outcome. The operational word being “test”… and measure. We should break from convention in an informed (rather than self-indulgent) way.

Record your results and come back to let us know how it goes!


DON’T MISS PARTS 1-4 OF MY CHAT WITH JAY, RELEASED EVERY TUESDAY IN JANUARY 2017

  1. The human approach to communication #1 – 03 January 2017
  2. The human approach to creating content #2 – 10 January 2017 (P.S. you’re here)
  3. The human approach to providing value via content #3 – 17 January 2017
  4. The human approach to data and measurement #4 – 24 January 2017

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Timi is a London-based copywriter and full-time marketing sceptic – there are now more unvalidated opinions out there than ever.

He became a UX testing enthusiast after seeing its power while working at TUI – the world’s largest travel, leisure and tourism company. He then joined WhatUsersDo to sharpen his UX knowledge and work side-by-side with the field’s best and brightest.

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