Designing the Future of Business

June 3, 2013

Recently, we’ve been thinking more about our UX practice, what we do, who we collaborate with, and the impact we would like to have on the people and businesses that are our clients. This reflection started on a trip with our friends and STBY colleagues Bas and Geke to visit the Pandas in Chengdu over New Year’s as we entered 2013. It continued when we spoke at Next Bank Asia Hong Kong and ran a workshop on “Global Design Research at UX Lisbon 2013, which gave us opportunities to discuss and understand the barriers and opportunities that UX professionals face today.

We have also been inviting people from a range of work roles and domain backgrounds into our studio in Hong Kong to better understand the barriers that people face in business today, which prevent them from delivering better products and services. This has forced us to think more deeply about our own toolkit—the skills that we need to help people and projects in ways that stretch current approaches—and the future of business that we want to help lead and design.

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We are intrigued by businesses that are looking beyond the business world’s traditional models and measures of success; reassessing their own purpose, values, and meaning; and implementing new business approaches that impact the people who work for them, their customers, and their competitors. For example, Deloitte research has recently identified a link between organizations’ instilling a sense of purpose and their long-term success.

10 Business Themes

Through this reflection, we have identified 10 themes that deserve further attention, discussion, and writing. Each of these themes forces us to think more deeply about our practice, the skills that we need, who can teach us these skills, and what impact we expect to have on each of these themes in our role as UX professionals.

1. Avoid silos, which prevent greatness.

The silos and other divisions that exist in business prevent the people on projects from delivering their best work. Silos create roadblocks that deter deep conversations and cross-disciplinary collaboration. (See Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s “Fight the Nine Symptoms of Corporate Decline and Josh Treuhaft’s How Can We Design Ourselves Away from Blah Conversations?)

2. Work in parallel streams.

Constraints exist in businesses that stop them from being able to innovate as much as their staff and customers would like. This is the unfortunate reality. Some leaders who talk about innovation don’t create creative environments in which product teams can try out new ideas. However, small teams working in parallel streams can try out new ideas and platforms without disrupting existing businesses. Create sandboxes in which people working on innovation projects can play. (See Dan’s article “Designing for Change.”)

3. Care about your customers.

Customers are increasingly looking for businesses that truly care about them and are willing to relate to them and serve them as human beings. Doing this requires healthy doses of empathy, transparency, and truth in business. For example, a bank should be able to reflect on its current business and the language that it uses and ask how they can do better—from their leadership right down to the finer details of their product set. (See our article “Being Human.”)

4. Make creativity a constant in business.

Businesses sometimes see creativity¬†as the primary responsibility of the artists and designers who work for them. They often misunderstand creativity, limiting it to making things pretty, or try to fix designs without the necessary thinking that should happen beforehand. But creativity is much more. Elements of creativity include giving people in business the spaces, time, and tools to explore new ideas. The goal should be to discover better ways of arriving at ideas and capturing the outputs of our conversations. The lack of creativity in a business hurts it to the degree that the designs of its products and services look the same as others, making them increasingly commoditized. (See Jessica Stillman’s “7 Characteristics of Highly Creative People.”)

5. Get inspired by the people on your team.

Businesses are often conservative by nature and avoid taking risks. But the world needs big thinkers and big dreamers—people who are willing to look beyond the day-to-day operations and current constraints and look for ways to inspire. Inspiration comes from people, so businesses need to attract and invest in people who can dream big. In addition to attracting the talent, they need to create cultures that encourage and nurture this way of thinking. Businesses need to take a deeper look at the skill sets they’ll require to prosper in the future. (See “Tony Fadell: From iPod Father to Thermostat Startup.”)

6. Provide self-service, but give service a human touch as well.

We continue to see people using self-service on the Web and mobile devices as they explore the Internet of things. While people like self-service, they also like to receive help from other people. Digital products are a constant, but they need not necessarily be the answer to all possible customer interactions. Businesses frame self-service as a way to reduce costs by removing the human element. But they should provide human touches at the right time—in a tone that makes sense to customers. (See Micah Solomon’s “What’s New About Serving Customers (and What’s Not).”)

7. Think beyond engagement to relationship.

Engagement could be just another word for marketers to overuse, and advertisements often get in the way of designing great experiences. So perhaps we should replace the word engagement with an alternative like relationship. We should stop thinking about how to engage customers and instead think about how to relate to people and deepen our relationships with them over time. Perhaps doing so would shift us all toward designing a mature and sustainable service model rather than focusing on the short-term wow factor that we often impose on customers in the wrong way and at the wrong time. Furthermore, it may encourage us to discover the emotions driving people instead of relying on the limited lens through which businesses often see their customers—viewing them primarily as market segments. (See Bill Lee’s “Marketing Is Dead.”)

8. Deliver Big D design and make a positive impact.

Businesses are starting to see the importance of design and becoming familiar with examples of how design can be a differentiating factor in business. But we need to do much more work to educate mature businesses about the operational realities that let us bake design into the way everyone works in a business and deliver great product and service experiences. This means we need to create overarching design principles, devise smarter ways of working, and develop toolkits for UX professionals that facilitate design. We should encourage a continuous cycle of design thinking, so we can constantly iterate our ideas, products, and services toward better design. We should not see UX design as yet another silo of protected territory. Instead, we should open things up, facilitate collaboration, and encourage richer conversations. See “Patrick Whitney on Reframing Design Thinking—and Beyond and our article “Positive Design Impact.”

9. Develop ecosystems and engage in holistic thinking.

Thinking about ecosystems evokes images of connections and energy flowing between nodes. There is a complex and pervasive ecosystem at play in people’s lives, which extends well beyond the way businesses see their own ecosystems and customers. Businesses often frame digital ecosystems without considering people and their activities. To survive in this world, we need to grow, overlap, and connect our ecosystems, looking at complementary ways of providing better services to people. Businesses may not always be able to build or provide the platforms for such ecosystems, but should look for opportunities to connect them. For example, to discover opportunities for banks looking beyond transactions, we need to extend our awareness beyond traditional business services and become deeply immersed in the lives of people. (See Dave Gray’s “What Is a Connected Company and Global UX, a book Dan coauthored with Whitney Quesenbery.)

10. Get out of the building and gather evidence.

There are so many versions of customer truth floating around a business that it’s hard to know who really has a full understanding of the customer. Actual customer data is relevant, but some so-called customer data is based on false assumptions and opinions. While opinion can be important, we need to balance opinion with real data, in the customer’s own voice, to get clarity on customer needs. To make informed business and design decisions, we need to ensure that we attribute the data that we discover correctly and verify that it maps to other data. Reliable research requires business investment. We can no longer rely on old methods of discovering customer needs or rely on numbers alone to capture human needs, motivations, and behaviors. Understanding human needs is bigger than numbers.

To that end, we need to get out of our cubicles, get out of the building, and learn how our products and services fit into real people’s lives. To communicate our understanding of human needs, we need to capture rich stories in the voice of the customer, as well as photos and videos. We must encourage businesses to foster constant curiosity about how they can serve people better.

Research is about answering big, interesting questions. This does not stop at one customer interview. Research is about constant learning; taking the business outside to listen to and serve customers. Customer contact is not the sole responsibility of sales or other customer-facing staff.

We should codify our learnings, creating tangible artifacts to share with others, and give these learnings and stories a home inside our businesses. (See Jan Chipchase’s “What’s the Secret to Design Innovation? Extreme Immersion,” Will Evans’s “Introduction to Design Studio Methodology,” the Global Design Research Network Web site, and the Web site for the book This Is Service Design Thinking.)

In Conclusion

Embarking on and investing in mature user experience and design programs is necessary to achieve all of this. Businesses must invest in the leadership and the tools that are necessary to make the future of business that we’ve described in our ten themes a reality.

However, we should not be so naive as to think that establishing a UX team or engaging an outside UX consultancy like ours can alone solve the larger problems. We need to invest in holistic business initiatives that enable User Experience to bring real value to projects and customers, delivering business returns beyond traditional business metrics. What do you think?

Thank you to everyone we have spoken with for all of the great conversations that push our practice along. These conversations have spanned the better part of a year traveling to places including Australia, Canada, USA, China, and Europe, with deeper moments at UX Hong Kong 2013—both with invited speakers and attendees.

We look forward to receiving our next learnings at UX Singapore 2013, where the journey continues, and we will continue to push ourselves to explore both ideas to which people are receptive and those to which people are not. 

Principal Design Researcher at Apogee Asia Ltd.

Hong Kong

Daniel SzucOriginally from Australia, Dan has been based in Hong Kong for over 20 years. He is a co-founder of both Make Meaningful Work and UX Hong Kong. Dan has been involved in the field of User Experience for more than 20 years. He has lectured on user-centered design globally and is the co-author of two books: Global UX, with Whitney Quesenbery, and Usability Kit, with Gerry Gaffney. He is a founding member and Past President of the UPA China Hong Kong Branch and was a co-founder of the UPA China User Friendly conferences. Dan holds a BS in Information Management from Melbourne University Australia.  Read More

Co-founder and Principal Design Researcher at Apogee Asia Ltd.

Hong Kong

Josephine WongJo is a co-founder of both Make Meaningful Work and UX Hong Kong. She grew up in the multicultural city Hong Kong, with her Chinese-Burmese father and Chinese-Indonesian mother. Fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English, Jo collaborates with global teams, conducting design research and usability testing. She is passionate about the environment, political and economic systems; and discovering how we can live healthier, happier lives without adversely impacting less fortunate people. She is a member of the Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA) Hong Kong Chapter. Jo attended Melbourne University, completing a Bachelor of Social Science Information Management.  Read More

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