Designing Customer-Centered Organizations

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“True product innovation requires a radical rethinking of our roles as researchers and designers.”Which way?
Organizations increasingly view usability and user-centered design to be a key ingredient in creating high quality products. Designing for ease of use is a well-accepted goal, even if many organizations have far to go to create user-centered products. Even with the present downturn in the economy, more companies, from new media to established banks, have larger usability and design teams than ever before. Should we be content that we have come so far?

In this context of greater corporate presence, how should user-centered design advocates evaluate whether the field has achieved success? We suggest two questions as possible criteria. First, are the products and services we build becoming more innovative in serving our customers’ needs? And are we, as professionals, confident that our activities are as effective as they can be?

User experience practitioners have long called for their involvement at the earliest stages of product development. If only they could be involved at the start of a project, their voices—and the customers they wish to serve—would have a greater impact on the type of products and services that ultimately get produced. This laudable goal acknowledges the often-late role of usability in the product development cycle, closer to implementation than inception. Less talked about is how even design often occurs late in business formation and product creation—after entrepreneurs and investors have created business plans and goals, and after product managers have defined product strategy and metrics.

True product innovation requires a radical rethinking of our roles as researchers and designers. Smart companies will gradually adopt early stage consideration of usage and users, with innovations in specific products and, more importantly, sets of products. To accelerate innovation, we must go beyond project-by-project improvements and employ many of our existing skills and methods to create customer-centered organizations. Rather than focusing on products, our impact can be greatest when we become advocates for developing organizational capital, the ability of companies to maximize the value of their investments in technology and ultimately their impact on the customers they wish to serve.

This article focuses on the shift from customer-centered products to customer-centered organizations through an emphasis on the why and how of creating change. Contextual research, iterative prototyping, customer frameworks and models, workflow diagramming, and building consensus are skills many interactive user experience professionals already have. Working with cross-functional teams of technologists, marketers, executives, researchers, and designers, we have begun to shift our work, in-house and as consultants, to building organizational capital.

Why now?
Companies are under more pressure than ever to achieve dramatic increases in their operational effectiveness. Despite recent times of relatively flat or even negative sales growth within many industries, expectations for ongoing improvement to the bottom line persist. As a result, reducing the costs of bringing successful products or services to market is a primary concern for even the most successful companies.

At the same time, as market competitiveness increases, the need for effective product strategies similarly becomes much more important. As the range and number of similar products offered to consumers expands, it is an ever greater challenge to define a unique and differentiated value proposition that attracts consumers’ attention and convinces them to buy your product over that of a competitor, and keeps them coming back for repeat purchases.

User-centered design (UCD) methods, now increasingly well-known, offer help on both of these fronts. By incorporating knowledge of how customers will use and react to new products, designers help reduce the risk that costs related to bringing products to market will fail to generate a return. Additionally, by putting more emphasis on the design of the product up front, development cycles can often be dramatically shortened, reducing the time and cost of developing the product. By prototyping product concepts early in the development cycle, teams have a higher likelihood of catching expensive errors earlier in the process when they are cheaper to correct.

Furthermore, early stage user research can identify strategic and tactical opportunities for product differentiation. By illuminating how different customers are likely to interact with the proposed product, research can help clarify and prioritize which features are likely to result in the most benefit and appeal. Designers can then work with researchers to prototype product designs that account for critical user tasks and contexts of use, iteratively refining the end product.

But despite the promises these user and usage-centered design methods hold for reducing development costs and increasing product quality, companies still fail to make sufficient use of them. Why? Conventional wisdom among practitioners suggest that the failing is due in whole or at least in significant part to an inability to successfully demonstrate to corporate decision makers a business case for a compelling return on investment (ROI) of employing user experience practices.

But this may not be, as most practitioners seem to think, so much the failing of being able to demonstrate return, as it is an unwillingness to approach design projects as investments at all (Merholz and Hirsch, 2003). Expenditures related to usability testing, design, prototyping, and content development are not valued as investments, but are seen simply as operational costs, akin to spending on IT support and facilities maintenance. Spending on design is necessary in this view, but something, ideally, to be minimized as much as possible. A return simply is not expected, and hence not calculated. Companies do not realize that by spending more on design, or by spending differently on design, they may be able to realize different returns.

While this may in part be true, the idea that a company can develop better products by listening to its customers is nevertheless a fairly self-evident one, and as such it is difficult to accept the notion that quantitatively proving the value of design is the only recourse to convincing companies to take advantage of these methods. Instead, we argue that the challenges companies face in attempting to truly benefit from design are more systemic, and embedded in the structure of traditional business practice and organization.

“Producing innovative solutions for our customers’ needs requires making significant and lasting contributions to an organization’s performance over the long run.”Beyond product strategy?
For the sake of discussion, we will assume that companies do recognize that employing user experience designers (including usability specialists, information architects, interaction designers, etc.) is worthwhile for the contribution they can make to elevate product quality. During the product development process, companies employ iterative usability testing to test for and correct critical errors in the product design, and incorporate improvements into the final version prior to release. You might think that this scenario represents the usability specialist’s utopian paradise. But what if the product fails in the marketplace nonetheless? “It’s not our fault,” some would say. “We did the best we could with improving the product design, but it was a flawed concept.”

Such a scenario is entirely imaginable, and likely one that many have experienced. But it begs the question: if it isn’t “our” fault, whose fault is it? That of product management? Of the corporate structure? Such answers feel unsatisfactory inasmuch as they deny our responsibility and accountability for product success. Producing innovative solutions for our customers’ needs requires making significant and lasting contributions to an organization’s performance over the long run. We must focus our attention beyond the incremental improvements we are able to offer during product development, and instead address strategic concerns about product and service selection, development, and evaluation. In order to substantively improve the competitiveness of the organizations we serve, we must utilize our methods to help those organizations discover how to more effectively plan for, prioritize, and invest in unique activities that create enhanced potential for identifying and taking advantage of market opportunities.

Contemporary organizations are growing in complexity. Decision-making is increasingly decentralized and distributed, technical infrastructures many layers deep, and cross-functional teams are now de rigueur. Even if a company is able to optimize its process for managing product development projects, it still faces significant challenges in seeking the right mix of development projects within its aggregate portfolio. Most large organizations encounter difficulties forecasting and tracking resource capacity, choosing which team members and skill sets to dedicate to projects, and communicating between groups to ensure that redundant or competing projects do not simultaneously find their way onto the queue. These challenges are exacerbated by the ever-diminishing ability of any one person in the organization to hold a clear picture in their head of the present state of the company’s operations.

If we recognize these as challenges and view them as inherent to today’s complex development systems, we can start to identify ways to use our training and talents to effectively manage them. Our skillfulness with analyzing and understanding structure, for clarifying problems, and for managing communication are strategic assets. These skills can be redirected to enhance an organization’s ability to thoughtfully align its endeavors and activities with its capacity, and to deliver on those initiatives effectively.

To accomplish this initiative, we must not only recognize the need to move user research farther forward in the product design process; we must also disrupt the relegation of design within an organization to a process of making (or, worse still, of decorating), rather than one fundamentally concerned with formulating and developing strategic plans. If we accept the notion that successful companies operate from the bottom up, using customer insight and feedback to form the foundation for developing product strategy, which in turns aggregates to form the basis of an overall corporate strategy, we then have a useful framework for situating design activities within an overall context for creating meaningful change.

Within that framework, the value of user research early in the product development process is obvious, and in fact is necessary in the development of product strategy. Less obvious is the role research-informed-design can play beyond the formulation of product strategy.

But could the same concepts not apply to all areas of corporate planning and effectiveness? If researching customers can help a company develop better products by clearly articulating the most important aspects to consider during product design, why can’t researching a company’s effectiveness at ongoing product development help a company develop a more robust corporate strategy? Product researchers and designers bring with them a unique set of skills that have potential to contribute to effective investment prioritization, capacity planning, and organizational decision making.

To help organizations negotiate the complexity of their technical environments, researchers and designers can map key relationships within the technical infrastructure that help visualize and clarify structural components, data elements, and workflow. To help decide between sets of projects, we can analyze the organization’s available resources for delivering on those projects, and create prototypical scenarios and simulations that reveal possible outcomes of projects in different combinations.

Crafting business strategy includes “creating fit among a company’s activities” (Porter, 1996). Note the similarity in objective to those of design, where quality is evaluated based on fitness to purpose (Alexander, 1970). Within modern day corporations, user experience designers are in the unique position to observe, understand, and communicate the needs of a company’s customers, as well as those of a company’s internal constituencies (including marketing, engineering, product teams, etc.) since the role of design spans multiple functional groups. As such, we have an unprecedented opportunity to sit at the fulcrum of a company’s efforts to align its internal activities with value generating activities for its customers. But to do so, we must take responsibility for driving business decision making, and stop seeing ourselves as passive victims of organizational politics run amok.

Case study: Toy manufacturer
A leading toy manufacturer (TM) approached the interactive design agency where one of us worked with a request to improve the usability of the registration process for a web-enabled educational toy. What began as a usability study for a patch project uncovered organizational structures that produced an “each sold separately” user experience.

TM executives and product managers expected that the installation process for the toy’s accompanying software and hardware would take about 10 minutes. By contrast, parents initially imagined the process would take 20 minutes, and reported that they postponed installing on their own because they did not think they had sufficient free time. Our initial research in customer homes with parents and children aged 7 to 12 revealed the problem to be much worse. The actual installation process required on average two hours, with many people unable to complete registration at all.

We discovered that the initial process required performing several tasks, including installing software, connecting a special module to the family PC, registering online, downloading new games, transferring games from device to toy, and remembering how to return for online purchases of new game packs.

Short-term solutions included reducing required registration entities from three to one, adding navigation and nomenclature that allowed users to understand how far they were from their primary goal, and reducing the interface complexity for first time users. But it was our mapping of the user experience and organizational obstacles to product simplicity and coherence that had lasting impact.

The root of the toy’s problems exceeded the scope of our project. The toy and connector module forms, functions, and packaging were developed by one set of groups, the installation CD by yet another group, and the website design begun after the other artifacts were in production.

Organizational change
Our consulting engagement helped TM change its product design process and recognize weaknesses in its existing organizational structure. Rather than rush to market toys with an ad hoc “internet enabled” gloss, the company has become more cautious about launching complex toys despite the allure of new technology and potentially more profitable distribution channels. Planning and collaboration between product and design groups are recognized as necessary for creating high quality products. And TM reacted to the effectiveness of our multi-stage research and design process by building a large in-house usability and user research department.

Because we served as external consultants we cannot be sure about how successfully TM has been able to move towards becoming a customer-focused organization. We do know some of the measurements for evaluating how far they’ve come:

  • Are customer needs and opportunities a critical input to the development of each product?
  • Have customer models been created across product lines and used for initiating new product development and prioritizing which products receive scarce resources?
  • Have research and design practices migrated from product design to other key organizational strategy and planning areas, including future scenarios modeling, resource allocation, internal workflow modeling, and corporate culture change?

The TM study illustrates how a particular project led to changes in how customer research contributes to product design and strategy. The next case study looks at how research and design methods were used to model an organization’s internal workflow and the impact on user experience, in order to create a framework for organizing product development across distributed business units.

Case study: Financial services
At a leading financial services institution, an internal user experience research and design team was struggling to maintain a set of design guidelines for the company website. Created as a way to ensure consistency across the 8,000+ page site, the existing guidelines governed use of brand assets (e.g., the corporate logo) on web pages, specified page layout, and defined best practices for site navigation. It also included guidelines for creating and maintaining effective metadata, ensuring compliance with ADA standards, and writing effective copy.

The team responsible for “owning” the guidelines-championing and maintaining them within the organization-often found that rather than serving as a useful tool to help promote effective online user experience design, the guidelines became a burden to keep up to date, and often caused frustration among the team as product managers, engineers, and third parties remained ignorant of the standards that had been developed, or refused to comply with them. So, in addition to the burden of developing the guidelines and keeping them up to date, the team struggled to keep up with their policing roles-attempting to convince other groups within the organization that they should respect the guidelines and design to them.

We decided on a two-pronged approach to clarifying the problem and attempting to generate sustainable solutions. First, we used ethnographic user research methods to study the work practices of those responsible for developing, maintaining, approving, and using the guidelines. We discovered that though the guidelines were developed as a way to govern site user experience, in reality they were used much more as a tool for governing production-level decisions: where to place headers, how big images should be, how to label buttons, etc. As new interface questions arose, new guidelines had to be developed and documented, and added to the intranet site where the guidelines were kept and referenced. Since product managers were constantly coming up with new Web product ideas that did not (or, at least in their own minds did not) fit within the currently specified guidelines, the team responsible for maintaining the guidelines was under constant pressure to re-examine, modify, and document their stylistic decisions.

After completing the internally focused research, we then planned and executed a rapid customer ethnography designed to evaluate the guidelines based on the effect they had on creating a high quality website (which, remember, was the ultimate point of the guidelines). Participants in the study were asked to keep journals of all their financial services activities over the course of five days. They were encouraged to tell stories with words and pictures about the experiences they had with our company’s website. We also observed them using the website in their homes and offices, and interviewed them about their usage behavior. Finally, they were interviewed over the telephone about their activities over a 30 day period, recognizing that financial activities tend to re-occur in month long cycles.

Internally-focused and customer research data showed that the great majority of effort on creating and maintaining the guidelines was wasted. While the production-level concerns of the existing guidelines certainly were important, their impact on the user experience was far less significant than more serious failings of the overall execution of the website strategy. Customers of the site generally had little difficulty navigating the site to move between pages or log on to their accounts. But they had little motivation to use the site as it was intended-to research and buy financial products like credit cards, home loans, and small business services.

The advantage of researching and buying financial products online wasn’t evident to customers from the site design, and even when it was, customers were not sure they could trust the site to be as safe, easy, or efficient as doing it through another channel, like over the phone or in a branch. Furthermore, the website failed to communicate the company’s overall value proposition-consolidating multiple financial products at one institution, online or otherwise. Consequently, customers wondered why they wouldn’t be better off going to different specialists for each of their piecemeal needs.

The origins of these failings were evident in the findings from our internal research. Product managers were held accountable for decisions about their specific products (e.g., home loans). The user experience team was held accountable for page-level decisions about the website’s design. No one within the organization was responsible for thinking across products, from a customer’s point of view, in order to drive home the primary value proposition for banking online: to aggregate all products in one easy-to-access, always-available location.

Organizational change
What started as a project about redesigning and updating a guidelines document developed into a program for prioritizing projects, organizing business units, increasing group level accountability, and identifying more effective governance models across the web channel. Senior executives became involved in the analysis and formulation of new action plans, and shepherded the transition to new organizational structures that built in incentives for managers and rank-and-file employees to improve their communication with other business units. Product and functional groups were encouraged to collaborate on decision making and share responsibility for the overall success of the web channel, rather than focus exclusively on individual product sets. New investments were made to the overall design of the site to more closely align it with the company’s overall communication strategy. And a content management system was installed to enable easier maintenance of routine upgrades to the site, as well as to act as an automated solution for enforcing the production level guidelines, which were now built into the page templates.

Closely monitoring the quality of the site user experience became a key part of the company’s metrics program, along with mechanisms for identifying and implementing incremental improvements. The existing user experience team began to be recognized as key contributors to the success of the company’s overall business strategy and were included in high level planning meetings that determined project priorities and budgets for the next calendar year.

Even though all of these changes were relatively recent and are still in progress, initial examination already suggests dramatic successes. Industry analysts rated the new site as being the best overall in the financial services industry. Aggressive sales goals were set for the channel, and were being projected on target or slightly better than planned. Teams reported feeling more cohesive and integrated. Productivity has been increased, and complaints about the website to customer service were down.

Certainly not all of these successes can be solely attributed to our guidelines project. Modern day organizations are dynamic, living entities, and it is unrealistic to expect that any one project can ever completely redefine a company’s business operations. But by revealing the connection between the way our company approached creating its website (how it designed) and the quality of the site it produced (what it designed), the guidelines project catalyzed a significant cultural change within the company. That change dramatically improved the organization’s potential for recognizing and responding to the evolving needs of its customer base and the competitive marketplace, and enabled the company to integrate user experience concerns with its everyday business operations.

“Rather than see usability, design, and product management as separated by a rigid wall akin to the division of church and state, we must pool our skills in a common pursuit of outstanding products.”Future design
This article calls into question two complaints we have heard from people most frequently over the past several years-from the most junior practitioners to leading experience design gurus.

“It would have been great if only they had listened to us.”
“Our innovative approach would have been revolutionary if the dotcom bust had never happened.”

Our skills, methods, practices, and know-how would have made successful products if only “they” had listened to us or if the boom had continued indefinitely.

We take issue with both complaints. Declarations of righteousness may resonate with other peers who have experienced adversity despite their best efforts. However, blaming business people for not listening to our great ideas makes it seem that “their” need to listen to us exceeds our need to communicate effectively to others, a core skill most designers and consultants would claim. Do we not share responsibility for others’ failure to listen to us?

Flush times should not be a pre-condition for the success of our work. Given the inevitability of business cycles of boom and contraction, our value must be in aiding businesses even when resource constraints are greatest. This transformation signals a break from late stage design and usability work and a shift towards less familiar territory.

The case studies illustrate how skills we share with other researchers and designers have worked within real world constraints and succeeded in making user experience more central to product strategy and organizational effectiveness. Conducting research with product developers employs the same research and modeling skills we already have. Mapping the disconnected world of distributed product development extends research and design work from “patching” problems to creating a product strategy that aligns customer demands for clarity and simplicity with organizational capacity.

To create innovative and useful products, our most common approaches are insufficient. We must be ready to sacrifice traditional style guides and a fixation on formal concerns that promote surface consistency and instead strive for new frameworks that ensure consistency of user experience. Rather than see usability, design, and product management as separated by a rigid wall akin to the division of church and state, we must pool our skills in a common pursuit of outstanding products. Rather than transfer blame for failure to business people’s bad decisions and failures to listen to us, we must take responsibility for better communication to decision-makers and for the ultimate success or failure of our products and companies.

Achieving the highest levels of user experience in products and services isn’t possible with an exclusive product and making focus, but requires engagement with organizational planning and decision-making. While the end state is still unclear to us, the methods come from our existing skills sets:

  • Using our customer research and modeling skills to understand the internal operations of organizations;
  • Creating frameworks for decision making about organizational potential rather than product trade-offs;
  • Prototyping and iteratively adjusting business strategies;
  • Visualizing existing and future processes; and
  • Supporting decision-making at the senior executive level and communication throughout an organization.

The economic downturn only accelerated the need to make a choice. We can continue with research and design as usual and seek to build bigger departments that have increasingly less impact. Or we can re-imagine our roles, using our existing skills to form the customer-centered organizations of the future.

  • John Zapolski manages multidisciplinary design teams at Yahoo. He is very active in developing the user-centered design community, serving as advisor and former director of AIfIA, and as the new chair of the AIGA’s Experience Design community.
  • Jared Braiterman is an anthropologist working in product development and organizational change (Stanford PhD, 1996). You can learn more about his consulting work at jaredRESEARCH.


  1. having only just come across this article some years after it was written, I think all of what is said is still very relevant today. One thing I would like to add is that, we as design practitioners need to take some responsibility as to how we communicate and utillise user centered methodology and demonstrate its value beyond project benefits. We have come up with a way of doing precisley this which we call proposition design. We use visual techniques to analysise business problems. We then use design led analysis to create tactical product innovation strategies to help companies actively navigate through markets, or create new markets etc. and optimise their internal systems. We have created a number of techniques which optimise the design process and signifcantly speed up time to market whilst reducing risk. this was done by doing precisely what you suggested which is radically re-thinking the role research & design play within business dynamics. Our understanding of implementation and delivery is the catalyst that allows us to do this. Thank you for a great article and I hope you have managed to get this out to a wider audience;-)

  2. I am very glad someone has finally written about this. I have found as a consultant that we are often the impetus for organizational changes through the design of the website. Basically, the client will buy-in so deep on what the product will deliver that when they realize they will have to change organizationally to support it, they do. This is a tricky bit, because it can also lead to product failure. I have often wondered how web consultancies could partner with management consultants to deliver more value.

    So what next? We can implement some of these changes organically, but how do we spread the word to other professions, other companies, executives, product managers, etc.? This is where I get a little stuck. To start small, we could start attending their conferences and publishing in their publications.

    Which brings me to my final bit. I challenge John and Jared to get this article, or some version of it, into a publication whose target audience is one we want to reach: executives, product managers, management consultants, etc.

  3. We’re intending to do just that, Brett. After showing a version of this article to a professor at Harvard Business School, he invited me to publish it in a journal for marketing managers. We’re currently working on adapting it for that audience. So, stay tuned.

  4. Enjoyable article. Thanks John and Jared!

    I’d like to add a word of advice for any designer interested in affecting organizational change: just find the person responsible for organizational effectiveness or the person leading a reorganization effort and express interest in helping out. Just as we love to talk about design, these people love to talk about organizations; so a love for creating order from chaos is one of many qualities we have in common.

    As John and Jared suggested, and in my experience doing organizational assessments at Stanford, the people responsible for projects dealing with organizational change often aren’t aware of the techniques we use to inform our designs. Upon discussing the techniques, they became excited about employing them during the project (and excited about having me help).

    These org-related projects really are a lot of fun and they offer a great opportunity to learn about framing our work in terms of its affect on the organization, which I’ve found, has a very positive impact on our credibility with executives.

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