XD Consulting: Designed for Stagnancy
The typical XD approach is fairly formulaic:
- Doing up-front planning and engaging with the stakeholders to help them understand the project goals and discuss project administrivia.
- Conducting some form of user research to gather insights about the core audiences who will interact with the product being designed.
- Providing a set of recommendations and design concepts.
- Doing additional phases of validation with the core audience, which may continue iteratively into implementation.
Throughout this process, XD consultants engage stakeholders at major milestones to get their input and approvals. If appropriate, we encourage stakeholders to observe the insight-gathering activities themselves, so they can see what we’re seeing, or we share videos or other research artifacts that capture what we’ve learned. All along the way, our clients blindly nod and agree, maybe asking a few questions here and there for clarification. But they generally caveat their comments with “You’re the experts.”
At the end of an engagement, we present our recommendations and deliver a final set of design assets, which could be anything from design concepts, to a prototype, to even an operational solution. We also likely share our ideas for change management with the client and, most important, how to maintain and optimize the solution over time through measurement and analytics. Then, we leave. We move on to our next big thing and hope our clients have taken our recommendations to heart. But what do our clients do after the consultants leave? The stakeholders and the organization continue on as before, owning some beautiful new deliverables and concepts, but wondering, Now what?
I am always shocked and disappointed by how much good XD consulting work lies stagnant and remains unused—and by how organizations continue to create bad experiences. Sometimes the reasons are beyond our clients’ control—such as budget cuts or stakeholder changes. But all too often, the explanation is simply that the organization was incapable of putting into action the great ideas they garnered from the design process. I believe they really do attempt to carry through with the work. We’ve heard feedback such as, “The insights and the design work were great, but then, when it came time to implement them, I don’t know, we just couldn’t make it happen.” Or “We just couldn’t translate the deliverables into what we actually needed to do.” I believe our client organizations have a much greater chance of creating good experiences when they can see first-hand what it means to do experience design and begin internalizing our practices themselves.
XD Consulting: Not Unlike a Bad Medical Experience
Let’s compare the aforementioned hospital experience to XD consulting. Imagine that our clients are the patients and we, the consultants, are the hospital staff. Our interactions with our patients are transactional and without true meaning—much like those of the medical staff that I described. Vacuous statements such as, “We’re going to take your blood work today” and “We’re just monitoring your heart rate” are not so different from “We need your approval of the site map before doing wireframes.” With each interaction, the patient needs to know what’s going on, but the hospital staff doesn’t feel comfortable sharing information before they know exactly what is wrong and what they can do about it. XD consultants frequently act covertly, exposing their methods and deliverables to clients only at predesignated milestones. We are notoriously uncomfortable with requests to see our in-progress thinking. So instead, our interactions become very transactional—intended to elicit only what we need to do our jobs and move the project forward.
In the hospital example, when the staff finally feel comfortable sharing the details of the diagnosis and prognosis—it’s just stress, by the way—they tell the patient he’s ready to be discharged and provide him with some information about what to do when he’s at home. That’s it. The closing conversation is just as transactional as the previous ones because they’re now readying the room for the next patient to arrive.
In consulting, when we share our final findings and recommendations, this presentation usually marks the end of the project. We’ve likely given our client some deliverables along the way, but typically, we don’t consider them final until the very end of the project. Unfortunately, this usually occurs when the consulting team is ready to move on to a new project, so we’ll provide minimal support and not much of a transition.
Emphasizing Transparency and Education
Fortunately for us, as patients, the sort of hospital experience that I described earlier is happening less and less frequently. Studies have proven that medical care should focus on education and provide transparency throughout the process rather than consist of transactional touchpoints whose intent is to protect staff integrity rather than address patient needs. Now, doctors and staff explain complex medical concepts in easy-to-understand terms rather than clinical jargon that demands simple trust from patients. They reveal their clinical decisions to patients rather than keeping them secret. They encourage patients to practice healthy behaviors while they’re in the hospital and explain the benefits of these behaviors rather than speedily giving patients written instructions at the end of their hospital stay. Staff also follow up with the patient after the visit rather than assuming the patient’s primary care physician will address the patient’s need, as was previously common.
These new medical practices are improving patients’ health outcomes. Patients are being exposed to the process and have an active role in it rather than being treated as though they’re simply on the receiving end of various medical activities without knowing how they pertain to their health. Similarly, to effect true transformation and enable our clients to realize our design recommendations, as XD consultants, we should emphasize transparency and education in their engagements with clients.