3 guests, 3 principles and 3 stories about the role of user-centred design

3 guests, 3 principles and 3 stories about the role of user-centred design

Every couple of weeks for the last few years, I’ve been lucky enough to sit down with someone who has done something pioneering in the world of user experience and just talk to them – really talk – for a good hour or so. We record it, then put it out there on my podcast, MEX Design Talk.

So when I was asked recently if I could give a presentation for Cambridge Wireless about the role of user-centred design in adjusting business service delivery, I thought I’d try to choose three stories from my 70+ podcast guests to show how others around the world have been approaching this idea.

The 3 principles I focused on were:

  1. Ascribing tangible value to the customer’s voice
  2. Establishing a continuous loop of customer insight
  3. Using bold creativity to turn insight into action

These came from my conversations with:

  • Alex Genov, Head of UX Research at the online retailer Zappos
  • Rachel Liu, Lead Service Designer at the educational publisher Pearson
  • Josh Shabtai, one of the innovation lab directors at Lowe’s, the DIY chain

I’ll put links at the end in case you want to listen to the full episodes with those guests, but here’s how my thinking for the talk evolved.

My starting point was to consider how most companies arrive at the practice of user-centred design in the first place.

If you want to get efficiently from point A to point B then a train which runs on a set of rails is the most reliable way to do that again and again and again. Most organisations today still behave like trains. They’re adept at running to their timetable and fixing familiar problems when they occur. That culture of limiting your thinking to operating your own set of rails and forgetting about the needs of the customers travelling with you becomes easily ingrained.

But what happens when something unexpected comes out of the blue and your customers’ destinations or goals start to change? Instead of going from A to B, suddenly your customers expect you to get them from A to C or A to D or possibly somewhere you’ve never even imagined.

Most of the people I talk to on my podcast are in that game in some way: the game of helping businesses which are used to operating like trains start exploring away from their familiar rails and their traditional routes. Some of them call themselves strategists and some of them call themselves designers. Some are even running quite large organisations as CEOs. Their approaches vary, but almost all of them rely on one key principal to achieve their aim:

“Improving their understanding of people’s behaviour.”

I’m sure you’ve heard myriad terms for this: user experience, user-centred design, service design – but it all comes back to one thing: can you listen to other people better – usually your customers – and can you do something useful with what you learn?

The three stories I chose are some of the many I’ve found particularly inspiring from my podcast guests about what it really means to do that. It is one thing to pay lip service to the idea of taking a user-centred approach, but it is quite another to actually make it stick.

Fairly early on in the life of the podcast I had a chance to speak with Alex Genov, who heads user research for Zappos. The company was one of the first big online retailers of shoes back in the late 90s. It was eventually bought by Amazon in 2009, but it continues to run very much independently with its own culture.

Alex and I discussed his career and some of the ways they approach user research, but it was really this culture and how it influences their approach to user-centredness which caught my attention. That’s because no matter how technically proficient your researchers are at tracking customer behaviour or how well your designers can shape your service in response, unless it is truly valued in company culture, it’s hard to sustain.

That’s the first lesson I wanted to share from my podcast conversations: to benefit from user-centred design, a company needs to visibly and explicitly recognise how important its customers are to its existence.

Alex told me about two ways they do this at Zappos. The first is ensuring every employee knows they have as much time as the customer needs to really listen during customer service calls. This is what Alex said:

“We don’t have any limits for how long an employee can talk to a customer. They can spend an hour or two hours. The longest time on record was over 10 hours with one customer. The rep took a couple of breaks, but apart from that they just continued to chat.”

Now, obviously not every call to Zappos customer service lasts 10 hours or even an hour. However, telling employees that talking to customers for as long as they need is their main priority sends a clear message: it demonstrates customer-centricity is key to the business.

Alex expanded on this. He told me the other way they reinforce the importance of ingraining customer-centred culture in the business is to mandate every employee, from the CEO to the newest recruit, spend time answering the phones on the customer service line on a regular basis. Of course, they have lots of other more formalised ways they do user research too, but making sure everyone gets to listen to customer problems directly – to hear the voice of the customer – ensures there is an understanding and an appetite for acting on that research at the highest levels of the organisation.

Another of the lessons I’ve learned is the importance of recognising the process of gathering customer insight as circular and continuous rather than linear and sporadic. This ensures it continues to serve its purpose: keeping a company’s operations innovative and responsive to customer need.

This came out of a conversation Rachel Liu, who handles service design for Pearson – one of the big educational publishers. A few years before our podcast chat, Rachel had actually spoken at one of my MEX conferences in London, where she’d presented a thorough study of how technology was being used for teaching in China. In an attempt to be a judicious podcast host I’d gone back to review her previous conference presentation before I interviewed her so I could ask her some questions about it.

However, here’s what she had to say when we started talking about that original research:

“Now that is something that was quite different to what I had seen. Parents who obviously had some sort of education and can still afford to, they want their kids to enjoy and have a good study habit at the beginning rather than going, ‘Oh I have to memorise, I have to cram.’ Because that was their experience and their pain point and they don’t want that anymore for their kids….”

She was talking about the motivations – the reason to purchase educational services like the ones Pearson provides – and how they’ve changed in just a few years. She knew they’d changed because she’d made the time to ensure her assumptions didn’t become set in stone and out of date. It may seem like a fine nuance, but there’s one thing worse than no user research…and that’s out-of-date or incorrect user research. The best innovations come from user research which is fresh and continuous.

The last story I wanted to share speaks to the other great challenge of user-centred design. Even assuming you have cultural and management buy-in like Alex at Zappos and you have an ongoing discipline of research like Rachel at Pearson, how do you act upon it in a creative way? How do you turn research into insight and insight into action?

I was able to speak with Josh Shabtai, one of the directors of Lowe’s Innovation Labs. If you’re not familiar with Lowe’s, think B&Q in the UK (a big DIY chain), but based in the US. It had a reputation for being about as traditional as a company could be, but Josh had come from a divergent background in game design. He and his colleagues had been brought in to shake things up a bit.

They realised that for a company like Lowe’s to embrace customer-centred innovation, they needed to make a showcase for their visions of the future – derived from user insight – with enough impact to stir things up and get the organisation thinking differently.

They started prototyping and building things they knew would make employees take notice. They published sci-fi-like comic books to visualise what they were talking about, they built exoskeleton robots to help in stores, they built holodecks to engage customers. Here’s what Josh had to say about the reaction:

“I can’t tell you how many emails we’ve had from employees across the Lowe’s network who saw the exoskeletons project and are just loving it and trying to get in on the next round…”

This conversation with Josh reminded me that charismatic artefacts can be essential to fuelling the fire of user-centred design in any company. Whether its a novel way of communicating – like the comic books Lowe’s innovation team used to showcase their ideas or something with real presence like a rapidly built prototype – these tangible demonstrations can motivate organisations to experiment.

If we return to the notion of most organisations behaving like efficient trains capable of going from A to B – of sticking to their rails – then hitherto, the motivation to change has usually come from something like competitive pressure or technological disruption. That’s certainly been the case among the people I’ve spoken with on my podcast until recently…until the the pandemic.

Today, in early 2020, we’re seeing the mother of all disruptions.

A rapid, global, unexpected societal disruption with an unfamiliar cause. Many companies will have no choice but to go off the rails and explore new destinations beyond their familiar ‘A to B’. My hope is that more of them will embrace the principles of user-centred design in pursuit of these new goals and sustain that innovation long into the future.

We’ll be exploring this further on 6th May in the first ever livestream edition of the MEX podcast, when you can join me for a conversation with Samar Héchaimé, co-founder of Agora Envisioning. Find out more and register for your place here.

Links to the MEX podcast conversations referenced in this article:

  • Alex Genov, Head of UX Research at the online retailer Zappos (episode 27)
  • Rachel Liu, Lead Service Designer at the educational publisher Pearson (episode 54)
  • Josh Shabtai, one of the innovation lab directors at Lowe’s, the DIY chain (episode 34)

There’s also a YouTube video of my original talk for Cambridge Wireless, where I discussed the ideas in this essay alongside another presentation from Tara O’Doherty of Akendi (my bit kicks off around 9 minutes 20 seconds into the video).

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