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How to make organisations more human

Every so often you get the chance to pull out of the trenches and reflect on what is happening in the fast-paced world of designing products, services and systems for organisations. I’ve pulled together some thoughts on the overall effect I am seeing we have on businesses as we conduct these design projects.

I get asked every so often what it is that I do as an ‘experience designer’. With projects as varied as defining new consumer products to bring to market through to developing digital platforms for bankers, the field of experience design covers a lot of territories. But one way of thinking about it that has stuck with me over the years is the idea of reintroducing organisations to their customers.

Every new organisation starts by meeting some form of customer need. It then develops a way to consistently meet that need over time through the profitable delivery of a product or service. After getting established, the business usually sets about optimising the delivery of these products and services, making more products and services and growing the customer base.

Over time, however, the people working within their different parts of the growing organisation (marketing, engineering, sales, management, etc), become more and more unable to maintain a clear sense of the customer need the organisation was set up to meet. There are every day demands in their roles: meetings, emails, angry customers, angry workmates, server crashes, job transitions and new workmates. These things take centre stage in employee’s minds as they do their work. It becomes increasingly difficult to get their head around the complexity of their role, let alone the complexity of how the whole organisation works together to meet the needs of customers.

Complexity and change is everywhere.

Which brings us back to customers, and their needs. These needs change over time as they start using new technology, make changes to their lifestyle, move with either fashion or trends, shift their perspectives or adapt to developments in the economy. These changes are often so subtle or related to their broader ecosystem that customers wouldn’t even know how to articulate them. It’s commonly a new player offering a new product or way of interacting that makes them realise there is a better way to meet their needs, so they switch. This is fine for the new organisation, but not the existing one who has worked so hard to serve the customers well up to that point.

Organisations need ways of staying close and adapting to these changing customer needs.

Enter design.

Design is the study of how people create. Over the last few decades, there has been a convergence of the field of design with social sciences like anthropology and ethnography. This has helped designers get into both the articulated and unarticulated needs of people to design solutions to serve them better.

Which is why I use the phrase reintroducing organisations to their customers. It’s not that organisations don’t know their customers; it’s just that their customers have changed in subtle ways that even the customers themselves don’t know how to communicate. Design methods identify these new needs and respond to them with new products and services.

Over time, organisations that engage in design methods can deepen their capacity to meet the changing needs of their customers, and also meet the changing needs of the people who come to work every day, adapting to people and making the organisation more human.

Here’s some of the lessons we’ve learned in our work in the trenches of design projects and what it means for customers, for employees, and executives, to make an organisation more human.

1: Engaging customers in design.

I have been in many design sessions with customers over the years, working on a wide range of new products and services, and there is one important thing that stands out: customers love it. They love contributing to something new that is actually going to be built and offered to the market. They love having their experience heard, and needs responded to. They love engaging in ‘producing’, and they are good at it. All it takes is for them to be engaged in a part of the design process where they can actually add valuable input.

I recently worked on a project developing a new online service for legal firms. We created a project team inside the company we were working with and quickly mocked up a series of screenshots that could be clicked though, looking like a real web-based service. Then we headed out to the legal firms to meet with potential customers. 

We arrived at a small legal firm to meet one of the associates I’ll call Chris, who invited us through to their boardroom. We passed the walls of paper files and the office of one of his colleagues. We were already starting to get a feel for what everyday life is actually like for Chris. 

Once we sat down and had been offered a glass of water, we opened the laptop and began to show Chris what we had started to build on screen, generated in part from a conversation with Chris a few weeks back. He became more and more animated as he found parts he liked, and others he would change. And as we discussed these changes, Chris effectively joined our design team.

As we left his legal firm Chris spoke of his appreciation, that the company would take the time to come and see him and involve him in this new service that would be coming to market.

This isn’t an isolated story.

Typical customer engagements can be disconnected across the organisation and can leave customers feeling like their contributions lack value or any positive effect on the organisation. The design process helps to engage customers where they can add the most value. Customers often find it much easier to contribute to a design process when they are asked questions requiring a story to answer, where they can just share their experience and not worry about getting the answer ‘wrong’. Also, putting prototype solutions in front of customers for comment or change is much better than the complex questions like “what would you like?” These types of ways of engaging customers can effectively invite them onto your design team.

It turns out that customers can be great designers.

Engaging customers in the design process gives them the opportunity to articulate subtle changes in their needs. It also helps businesses track what is desirable to customers, and not simply focus on cheaper ways to build and sell current products or services.

But why aren’t customers always involved in this way?

The mental model of ‘producers’ and ‘consumers’ has been around for a long time. The logic is simple: the ‘producers’ create and deliver products and services, and ‘consumers’ purchase and use them. This model has embedded itself in the practices of organisations for generations. In the design process, this divide is challenged. ‘Consumers’ are engaged in generating, and testing new solutions for their needs. It unlocks them from simply being consumers, making their experience more human.

For organisations, entering the world of the customer reveals the contexts their products and services are used, helping to prioritise internal efforts to meet changing human needs.

Making organisations human not only has this effect on customers like Chris but also on the employees who go out to meet him in these design projects.

2: Addressing the fragmentation of organisations.

There are various ways employees contribute to what the organisation offers, depending on the part they play in the production or delivery of the product or service. However, employees often come up with questions or ideas for improving the organisation – and its offer­ – that require access to multiple parts of the organisation to explore or test.

I’ve been reflecting on my work over the years in the design of products, services, and organisational systems. I’ve called the overall effect of these design projects, “making organisations human.” I looked at the effect humanising an organisation has on its customers; that it breaks down the divide between ‘producers’ and ‘consumers’, helps organisations understand the exact value they offer customers, tracks changes in customer needs, and helps the organisation prioritise internal project work in response.

There are various ways employees contribute to what the organisation offers, depending on the part they play in the production or delivery of the product or service. However, employees often come up with questions or ideas for improving the organisation – and its offer­ – that require access to multiple parts of the organisation to explore or test.

This is where things get difficult.

It is common for discussions about how to make organisations more innovative to centre on the development of ‘more creative and impactful ideas’ or ‘better understanding of our customers’. In reality, however, the people who work throughout these organisations have quite a lot of ideas and quite a bit of understanding of the customers they interact with. The problem is that they can’t access the necessary parts of the organisation they need to contribute these ideas and their understanding and turn them into a new product or service delivery.

Innovative ideas and customer empathy are often spread across an organisation, harnessing these can be ad hoc, unstructured, and get lost in the everyday running of the organisation. All this value for the organisation is trapped in its different parts. And those working in the organisation know this challenge. The feeling of working against ‘the system’.

This is a challenge that I have been engaged with for a number of years. We here at DNA are constantly meeting incredibly intelligent and driven people, who are limited by the fragmentation of their organisation.

In a recent project for a large corporate, we were redesigning ways the business was communicating and interacting with its customers. The project team was formed from across a number of core functions, which helped them gain a deeper understanding of how the roles within the business worked together to deliver value to its customers. With this view, the team was able to quickly create solutions to be validated with customers. Some of the team members were amazed at the speed at which new digital prototypes were being built, tested with customers and other parts of the organisation.

The project provided a way to quickly build and ‘flesh out’ the ideas people had, to see if everyone is on the same page, and create better solutions with more information. It is an experience loved by employees who get to contribute in ways beyond the limits of their roles and the usual organisation dynamics.

As with this example, the project teams we form inside organisations, as we design a new or better product or service, get immersed and engaged in the ‘project experience’. They get to be involved in shaping the solution, but also often the part of the organisation that shapes their life each working week. Having the chance to do this, and to see their organisation change shape slightly in response to what they offer, makes people feel less like they are in a big machine, and more in a human-led organisation, one they can make a tangible contribution to.

3: Navigating divided minds.

Human organisations engage customers in the development of new products and services, unlock staff from being fragmented across their organisation, and diffuse the intense pressure that executives are often forced to handle. In short, they make the experience more human for everyone involved.

There are three main barriers to an organisation becoming more human and explore how these barriers came to be. The first of these barriers, disconnected plans is what hampers the execution efforts of an organisation, making it difficult for those who work there to be truly effective.

The second main barrier to making an organisation human is ‘divided minds’. This goes largely unnoticed in most organisations but affects almost everything an organisation does.

The industrial revolution was a key historical moment in the development of the modern organisation. One of the most significant ideas coming from this time was the division of labour. Breaking down complex tasks involved in delivering a product or service into simple tasks that could be mastered by individuals. Individuals are then divided up into their different skills areas (departments) to deliver the product or service to market. This is a genius idea for achieving incredible advances in areas like manufacturing, education, and healthcare. However, it also has negative implications.

With the division of labour also comes division in the minds of people, because people have been able to do their task without needing to consider the entire organisation.

Making organisational decisions requires the ability to hold both the big strategic picture and the detailed nuances of the situation. The departmental structure of organisations offers a great platform for either the big picture or detailed view, but not both.

The challenge for organisations is to find ways to engage multiple specialisations in key decisions. The difficulty is in finding a basis for decision-making which is not reliant on any single department.

Enter the customer.

Mapping the experience of the customer provides neutral territory for the different departments to make organisational decisions. It also shows how each department needs to work together in order to deliver value to customers. Mapping allows each specialist to share the nuances of their situation while maintaining the big picture of the organisation of which they are a part.

In the last year, at DNA we have designed a number of customer experience maps and seen the effect they have on bringing an organisation together. They have helped identify and prioritise the key organisational problems that are constraining growth, spot the areas and causes of breakdown, and identify where and why customers are leaving.

One of the big reasons for the effectiveness of these customer experience maps (and tools like them) is the simple fact that they enable all parts of the organisation to share the information needed for good decisions. It’s a simple move, but really important for enabling organisations to overcome the barrier of divided minds.

For those organisations looking to become more human, it’s essential to let the experience of your customers help you make decisions together as an organisation. 

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