Five Best Practices for Becoming a Data-Driven Design Organization, Part 1

By Michelle Bacigalupi

Published: February 22, 2016

“A customer experience (CX) design strategy comprises intentional design activities and processes that, when taken together, enable a team to deliver exceptional customer experiences.”

A customer experience (CX) design strategy comprises intentional design activities and processes that, when taken together, enable a team to deliver exceptional customer experiences. When you create meaningful products or services, they offer unique value to customers and are distinguishable from those of competitors.

I lead a Customer Experience Design team in the Digital Marketing and eCommerce group at the one of the world’s largest Web-conferencing companies. Over the last few years, my team has undertaken several complete overhauls of the Web site and designed the customer experience for a new content-management platform. Upper management dictated extremely aggressive deadlines, and we launched on schedule.

One thing that initially seemed to surprise everyone in the company—except our team—was that our in-house CXD team was responsible for executing such ambitious research and design projects in their entirety rather than using agencies.

Throughout this experience, our team leveraged CX research and design best practices and advocated for the use of new technologies that were instrumental to the success of our projects. The customer-centric data that we derived from our research provided insights into current trends and best practices relating to ecommerce and marketing Web sites.

On reflection, I realized that the methods and process my team had embraced provided the building blocks for a CX design strategy for my organization. In Part 1 of this three-part series, I’ll take you with me on my journey of discovery through these projects.

Best Practice 1: Customer-Journey Research

“Bringing customer-centric thinking and methods into an organization is both high risk and high reward.”

Doing customer-journey research is a key best practice in integrating customer-centric thinking and approaches into an organization.

The Challenge or Opportunity

Bringing customer-centric thinking and methods into an organization is both high risk and high reward. In growing and grooming a Customer Experience Design (CXD) team, I quickly had to figure out what success meant for an organization going through the upheaval and growing pains of the latter stages of being acquired by a much larger company. This was a large company that is not known for its customer-centric thinking.

It was often uncomfortable being the one asking the hard questions in meetings: What problem are we solving? What customer needs and opportunities do we need to address? What are the business goals and requirements? While these questions sometimes shocked or disturbed people, my CXD team found an executive champion and, over time, we began making the necessary shifts.

Having a sense of urgency, I immediately identified the gaps in our customer data, as well as the methods we needed to follow to gather that data.

The Learnings

Even now, customer-experience design remains a new approach for many people in software organizations and businesses. I am sure that at least one colleague who is now one of my net promoters thought I was an alien when we started our journey. (He probably still thinks I’m an alien, but at least he realizes that I’m a friendly alien.) One of the most important learnings from our initial effort to research and map the customer journey is that including influential stakeholders is critical when planning customer research. I have applied this learning to all our subsequent efforts. Another key lesson is that your research data and analysis must surface concrete, actionable steps that align with business goals and requirements.

Research Best Practices

“Customer-journey mapping … provides the foundation for developing a Web strategy that delivers the right customer experience.”

It is always important to employ research best practices to gain deep insights about your customers. But, for two reasons, this is especially important for an organization going through a major transition in their Web strategy:

  1. Your research findings enable your organization to develop and internalize a shared view of your customers.
  2. This shared view provides the impetus to establish a common, customer-centric philosophy throughout your organization.

Customer-journey research gives you an opportunity to get a snapshot of how your organization is doing in terms of the end-to-end customer experience. One of the best ways to understand and represent customer perceptions is by creating an end-to-end customer-journey map. I’m a big believer in customer-journey mapping, which provides the foundation for developing a Web strategy that delivers the right customer experience.

Forrester describes the value of the customer journey as follows:

“The customer journey spans a variety of touchpoints by which the customer moves from awareness to engagement and purchase. Successful brands focus on developing a seamless experience that ensures each touchpoint interconnects and contributes to the overall journey.”

Just as the customer-journey map provides a roadmap that helps business stakeholders better understand their customers’ expectations for a great experience, it also helps your CXD team understand how to ensure that the experience aligns with business strategy and goals.

The Need: Getting Management Backing

“It’s useful to show how your approach is more innovative or appropriate for your company’s business goals.”

Presenting examples of journey maps from other companies is critical to building credibility. Yes, of course, your teammates should regard you as the CX expert within your own company. But the truth is that companies still like to see external validation of your approach. And, if you’re going to depart from the norm—in terms of current operating assumptions—in any significant way, it’s useful to show how your approach is more innovative or appropriate for your company’s business goals.

So I prepared a presentation in which I shared the experiences of other organizations in using customer-journey maps and how the outcomes of this approach benefited their business. I also included some third-party industry quotations from Forrester’s report, regarding the era of the customer.

The Journey-Mapping Process

“The journey-mapping process itself established long-term relationships between the CXD team and stakeholders. These relationships proved to be extremely helpful during the intensive Web strategy and implementation phases.”

To facilitate our journey-mapping process, I hired a consultant. Bringing in an impartial expert from the outside is helpful when working with a cross-functional team, because personalities and politics are less likely to derail the process.

The stakeholders who participated in our customer-journey research included directors, product-marketing managers, product managers, customer-success representatives, and support representatives. This was the first time that we brought this cross-functional group together to talk about the customer. So, in addition to the benefits of journey mapping that I cited earlier, the journey-mapping process itself established long-term relationships between the CXD team and stakeholders. These relationships proved to be extremely helpful during the intensive Web strategy and implementation phases.

During our journey-mapping workshops, we did the following:

  • Broke the customer journey into phases.
  • Invited all participants to use Post-its to identify customer touchpoints along the following swim lanes:
    • User-facing touchpoints
    • Human touchpoints within the organization
    • Back-end technologies for each of these
  • Evaluated each touchpoint to determine whether it is a moment of delight—meaning we should keep doing it or do even more—or a painpoint—that is, an opportunity to do better.

We also did contextual ethnography with various business owners and customers. This involved direct observation of customers by the consultant, as well as other UX research professionals on our team. Some research sessions involved interviewing and observing other teams within our organization—such as Customer Success and Technical Support. For other sessions, researchers visited customers who fit the persona profile and, through both observation and interviews, collected information about their experiences with the Web site and product.

We aggregated the information that we had gathered into a coherent design framework and developed buyer journeys for several personas. Stakeholders and management vetted and approved the journey maps.

The Business Impact

From this journey-mapping process, we extrapolated a roadmap for new design requirements, as well as improvements to existing designs. Plus, we taught designers to base their design solutions on our understanding of the customer and align them with business goals and strategy.

We now use the framework and language of the customer journey in all discussions about projects, priorities, and roadmaps. We have established ongoing customer-journey research as a CXD best practice and continue building out the next phase of the customer journey.

Best Practice #2: Moderated Testing of Early Designs

“Early, iterative testing of UX designs provides insights from a customer-experience perspective, helping the business to understand whether and how a design solution meets the business goals and requirements.”

Our user research has enabled us to improve our information architecture and interaction models—early in the software-development process before committing development resources. The results of this research have been better outcomes for both customers and the business. Early, iterative testing of UX designs provides insights from a customer-experience perspective, helping the business to understand whether and how a design solution meets the business goals and requirements.

The Challenge or Opportunity

At an overarching level, our goal was to build a data-driven culture that makes customer centric–design decisions. So I identified and developed CXD strategy methods that would provide the information we needed to drive decisions. Exercising our influence to help the organization become more customer centric required our continual commitment, patience, and persistence. By leveraging windows of opportunity for research, I began building the organization’s appetite for gathering early learnings to help drive decisions—using associated metrics when available—and support business goals.

The Learnings

“Once a CXD team has created designs based on customer-journey profiles, it is extremely important to test those designs with people who match the targeted profiles.”

Once a CXD team has created designs based on customer-journey profiles, it is extremely important to test those designs with people who match the targeted profiles. Many still view design as subjective. (While those of us with training in the field of CXD understand the science behind design, educating others is still necessary.)

The best way to validate designs or design elements—for both your CXD team and your stakeholders—is to be as rigorous as possible in matching test participants to approved customer profiles. In this way, you can validate design decisions and changes. Each research activity builds on previous insights, giving you a database of archived information to mine. It also establishes a history of design decisions that your team has made based on research.

Using an iterative design process, your UX team can gather early feedback on and determine the usability of specific design options, choose the best design options for targeted user profiles, and apply your research findings to improve designs. Moderated, in-house usability testing let us obtain early feedback on design options for new ecommerce flows, from participants who fit the customer profile we had agreed on. The results of our research provided clear design direction and supported our final, data-driven design decisions, which were based on participant feedback.

The Research Process

“To guide the research, I instructed the CXD team to leverage the issues we had uncovered during the customer-journey project and use them to inform design decisions.”

Since we had no user researchers on our staff, I hired an outside agency to conduct the usability testing. Best practice indicates that designers should not test their own designs—they’re too close to the project. I arranged to use online conferencing to conduct research with each participant or group of participants. This was a first for my organization, even though it is an Web conferencing company. This approach delivered numerous advantages during testing:

  • We reduced the complexity of scheduling logistics.
  • We were able to involve more participants because geography was not an issue.
  • The test costs were almost inconsequential.
  • We could use document sharing and video conferencing.
  • It enabled us to include observers from anywhere in the organization.

To guide the research, I instructed the CXD team to leverage the issues we had uncovered during the customer-journey project and use them to inform design decisions. Based on our previous customer-journey research, we were able to create clickable, walk-through prototypes of several design options.

We invited twelve participants who matched the target profile to be part of the research. Each of the research sessions lasted no more than two hours and comprised scenarios and tasks that were typical of what a customer would do in a given context—for example, signing up for the service or finding information. We followed a standard think-aloud protocol, in which participants share what they are thinking while using a design solution. The moderator walked each participant through the prototypes. Stakeholders—in particular, Product Managers and Program Managers—dialed in and listened, but could not  interact with the participants. There was great value in their seeing what potential customers said about their experience.

The Results and Business impact

“Increasing the number of design decisions that were based on customer research contributed to our building a customer-centric organizational culture.”

Using another project-appropriate, customer centric–research method provided value in three ways:

  • By revealing customer thinking, it built credibility in the organization.
  • The CXD team and the broader organization learned another approach for customer-centric research.
  • It provided data on which to base our design decisions.

Increasing the number of design decisions that were based on customer research contributed to our building a customer-centric organizational culture.

By letting us hear first-hand feedback from potential and current customers, our research gave us a new touchpoint that added to our organization’s understanding and enabled us to create more robust personas. Through this process, we built greater organizational confidence as we leveraged our research results in making final design decisions. This made the work of building consensus among stakeholders a lot easier. Our discussions were data driven. The research did the convincing. This approach results in quicker, more directionally accurate design decisions and fewer design iterations, which translates to faster time to market.

Our designers learned to gather early feedback from research, with participants matching our targeted user profiles, and to apply the learnings when iterating on their designs. The research process also demonstrated to stakeholders and management the value of gathering early feedback from customers. Our research had a positive impact on the business and enabled us to accurately execute on business goals and reduce the cost of design cycles. Plus, we increased the quality of the customer experiences—as our Web metrics demonstrated. From one research activity to the next, we gained a series of useful insights.

The Canary in the Coal Mine

“ Both the metrics that we track and the way we leverage them in discovering insights demonstrate our organization’s growth. As does our organization’s support for customer-research efforts of various kinds.”

Honestly, writing about these five best practices has helped me to reflect on how far we’ve come as an organization in building our customer-centric focus. Both the metrics that we track and the way we leverage them in discovering insights demonstrate our organization’s growth. As does our organization’s support for customer-research efforts of various kinds. Cross-functional teams now devote more time to reviewing the research data and leverage the data when brainstorming roadmaps and design directions.

However, I would wager that most of our CXD professionals have often felt like the proverbial canary in the coal mine that chirps to alert miners to problems. Ours can be a lonely voice because our professional colleagues are not always trained to hear and attend to our advocacy for the customer experience. Thus, our journey has been a bumpy road, along which I’ve learned how to speak to and influence naysayers. Since I was originally hired to bring CXD expertise to the organization, I felt that I was responsible for finding ways to help my colleagues tune into what our CXD team brought to the discussions. I knew they weren’t tone deaf!

In Part 2 of this series of articles, I’ll share how using some additional customer-research methods and implementing right-sized processes has helped to tune the ear of the organization over time. Plus, I’ll describe how building a CXD team that is both synergistic and diverse is critical to developing a holistic customer-experience design strategy.

2 Comments

Great writeup! Thanks for sharing!

Just out of curiosity about: “we had no user researchers on our staff” and “Best practice indicates that designers should not test their own designs—they’re too close to the project.” What’s the reasoning behind not getting in-house user researchers—as opposed to an external agency—given that, day in and day out, there will be design deliverables that require user research and evaluation.

Though I’m not in Michelle’s organization, I think I can provide a general answer to that: It’s always good to have someone on staff who is in charge of user research. Having someone—or a few people—on staff brings a continuity and institutional memory, as well as proving ongoing strategy for the experience. Research agencies are great to scale, but you just won’t have this continuity when you’re solely shopping out individual research projects to vendors.

But, for various reasons it isn’t always possible to have someone on staff. Some common reasons include:

  1. PRIORITY, BUDGET AND HEADCOUNT—In many companies—particularly if they’re engineering driven or from old-school marketing or sales—user research isn’t heavily enough valued to have a headcount dedicated to it. When these companies do research, they’ll tend to hire out for it on a project basis. This is sad, but true, and a pragmatic design leader will gladly use outside researches if the other choice is having no research at all in the process.
  2. RECRUITING CHALLENGES—Even at companies who want to create a dedicated headcount, it may be hard to recruit good research talent. Depending on geography, skilled researchers may be in short supply. And, researchers may be continually lured down the street by some startup who has cooler or more glamorous projects than yours.

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