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Good design is about more than just customers

Designers aspire to create simple and elegant solutions for customers. But you can’t achieve this lofty goal in the solitude of a designer’s ivory tower. Great customer experiences need the business to do the heavy lifting for the customers. Which in turn requires a myriad of capabilities, processes, and systems. Crafting great customer experiences requires designers to get out and embrace these organizational complexities.

Designers have traditionally worked in isolation. We are great at creating visions without thinking about what they take to deliver. Understanding the constraints of the medium for which you design is critical. If you ignore them, you’ll fail. Agile Design techniques have unlocked opportunities for designers to collaborate with software developers, which in turn has allowed us to improve our understanding of technology constraints dramatically.

This is a great step, but it ignores the other piece of the puzzle – the organization itself. Being able to design and build something does not mean that it works for the business. Many other success factors are required to sustainably deliver a customer experience.

Designers play the role of customer advocate. They campaign for ‘outside-in’ thinking. In doing so, they often fall into the trap of playing the role of an organizational outsider. They campaign against the organizational bureaucracy for the greater good. Often to the point of religious zealotry. In doing this, we ignore or disregard the necessity for ‘inside-out’ thinking.

Broadening your perspective

Thinking only outside-in is too simplistic. It ignores the value of the complex systems which make up large businesses. Rather than viewing organizational systems as bureaucratic evil, we need to see them as the medium we’re designing in. You will have to understand and embrace their capabilities and constraints.

People are not inherently evil. Nobody deliberately creates a bad customer experience. In my experience, bad experiences are usually a result of either of two things: 1. A disconnect from the customer. 2. Organisational constraints that can’t be fixed within a team.

Designers are well schooled in connecting with customers. Bringing the voice of the customer into the building is one of our main roles. On the other hand, organizational constraints are something that is out of our remit.

Great opportunity lies in broadening our perspective. By thinking about the rest of the organization, we can supercharge our impact. You’re missing a trick if you’re not familiar with what drives standard operational functions. These include the usual suspects in any commercial business: Sales, Marketing, IT, Finance, Accounting, Legal, Distribution channels, Call Centres, HR. Normally, these areas are considered stakeholders. They should be considered collaborators.

As designers, we love taking a holistic view. Our tools take us from UI’s to user flows, to journeys. But they usually stop at the customer perspective. We need to be willing to apply a different lens to that journey. We need to look at it from an organizational perspective. We need to consider where the customer experience fits into the broader organizational context. And what capabilities and systems are required to deliver it.

To use an analogy, Formula 1 drivers are experts at being in the driving seat. They are also intimately acquainted with how the engine works. I’d be willing to bet that any driver would be just as handy with a spanner in their hand as a steering wheel.

Service Design practices are a bridge that helps us think from the inside out. Service Blueprints go a long way to considering this broader organizational context. They map a customer journey to the systems and capabilities required to deliver it. They create a holistic view that helps to orchestrate a symphony, avoiding a cacophony.

These tools perfectly dovetail with Lean thinking. Lean tools, such as value stream mapping, apply an internal lens to the act of delivering value to customers. A clear definition of customer value is required in these activities. This is where designers can play a key role.

Be a facilitator, not just a designer

The role of designer starts to change once you shift your focus from user interfaces to organizational capabilities. You start to become a facilitator in the creation of a user experience, rather than just a designer of it. While there is still design work involved, it’s only part of what is required.

A designer’s role focuses on taking the team on a journey of understanding the user, facilitating research to build empathy. This combines with design thinking and collaborative design approaches to create innovative product solutions. Solutions that balance the user needs, business requirements and technical feasibility.

Start with why, before you get to what

Changing experiences requires changing the people providing them. Changing people can be hard. It requires changing their capabilities, their processes and hardest of all, their culture. This requires winning hearts and minds. The best way to do this is with a compelling vision.

Creating a compelling customer experience vision is the simplest way to align everyone’s thinking. Show people from different parts of the organization why they are doing something. This helps them align the what that they do. Understanding that common purpose, allows people to get behind it.

Our storytelling and visualization skills make us perfectly placed to create a compelling vision. Customer journey storyboards are a great way to share a company’s value proposition. It helps make it real.

Profit is not a dirty word

Underlying all this is the need for designers to embrace profit and revenue. These are topics that tend to make designers uncomfortable. They are not dirty words – they are the ultimate constraint to work with. Profit is like oxygen, it’s not your reason for existing, but without it, you’ll cease to exist. As a designer, you need to understand how your organization makes money. Otherwise, there’s every chance you’ll inadvertently suffocate it. Invest the time to learn about the engines that drive profitability in your business. Learn how to fuel them, and you’ll supercharge your impact.

And for the record, the same still applies to Government or Not-for-Profit organizations. Just substitute the word revenue with funding.

You are what you read

One final thing to think about is that you are what you read. Do you spend all your time in a design echo chamber reading articles about UI design and visual beauty? Or do you have a diverse mix of topics in your reading backlog? If you want to broaden your understanding, you should treat yourself to the HBR subscription.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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