The Benefits of Being Vertically Agnostic

March 23, 2015

“Jack of all trades, master of none.”

This common saying typically refers to someone who has a wide range of interests, but minimal knowledge of each of them. While some might think that referring to a person in this way could be a compliment—a nod to a Renaissance man like Da Vinci or Michelangelo, what about a business? Would it be beneficial for a company to apply its expertise to several different business verticals or simply stick with what they know? While both diversification and specialization have their pros and cons, taking a design-driven, vertically agnostic approach to business can be a powerful way of bringing perspective and understanding to projects, companies, and even entire industries.

Realizing that creating a successful product does not require that your UX expert also be an industry expert expands the possible solutions and potential innovation opportunities for any vertical.

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When Ignorance Matters More

While having little experience in an industry can be a hindrance, it is also an opportunity. In the PBS documentary about Charles and Ray Eames, Richard Saul Wurman talks about the collaboration between IBM and the Eames, stating that, “[When] you sell your expertise, you have a limited repertoire. [When] you sell your ignorance, it’s an unlimited repertoire.” In other words, just because you are not an expert in a particular industry, that does not mean you have nothing to offer.

At ÄKTA, we’ve taken on projects for companies within industries in which we had very limited expertise. However, our UX research–driven approach helps us to discover insights about users, as well as opportunities for the business and potential technology innovations—despite our prior lack of knowledge about an industry. In fact, our ability to offer an outside, unbiased, “ignorant” perspective has been extremely valuable to our clients. This perspective—along with our passion, hard work, and desire and ability to learn quickly—can provide results that go beyond what industry experts could initially imagine or would assume to be possible—whether the focus is on creating products or entire businesses.

We’ve seen the benefits of business leaders’ being vertically agnostic. For example, consider the appointment of Alan Mulally as CEO of the Ford Motor Company, in 2006. Before the ex-Boeing VP became CEO at Ford, the company had been struggling as a result of the late-2000s recession, had not had a profitable quarter in the previous two years, and had suffered multi-billion–dollar losses. Since coming on board, Mulally’s transformative leadership has ushered Ford into five consecutive years of annual profits.

Mulally’s greatest asset—other than his successful career at Boeing—was his ability to introduce new perspectives to the century-old company. For a long time, Ford had taken a top-down approach to management and business. Mulally revolutionized the way Ford identified and implemented new concepts by creating an environment in which they asked, encouraged, and rewarded individuals at every level in the company to offer their ideas and solutions to problems. His culturally focused perspective on leadership generated change throughout the organization—from increased management transparency to better safety regulations and manufacturing procedures. This, among other things, made Ford a more efficient, profitable company and a more enjoyable workplace.

Bridging the Gap Through User Experience

We often see similarities across projects in distinctly different industries. Our UX process lets us identify these similarities, enabling us to create unique opportunities while simultaneously gaining access to new knowledge. Applying fundamental UX principles and practices and, at the same time, having an immersive learning experience within a new industry, lets us go beyond the limitations of conventional industry approaches and enables us to conceptualize and map out innovative solutions. The primary and most powerful driver in laying the groundwork for accomplishing this is the broad gamut of user insights that we have uncovered through our UX research.

Though projects, companies, and industries differ vastly in many ways—both operational and structural—the consumers or users they serve generally exhibit similar contextual behaviors and attitudes when it comes to how they interact with different categories of products. These similarities—along with the insights that we discover through our UX research and learning processes—provide a broad foundation that enables us to develop more innovative, viable solutions.

Being vertically agnostic in the way you approach problems—not just UX design problems, but problems within the realm of business in general—does not mean that you should ignore conventional problems and focus instead on identifying new ones. It simply means you can construct the pathways that you use in problem solving, using a different set of parameters in place of domain-specific knowledge.

Looking Beyond the Scope

However, a viable, successful project does not hinge only on your being able to bring an outsider’s perspective to the table. A key to maximizing the benefits of the unique perspective that you bring to a project is your understanding of where and how your unconventional approach to finding solutions fits into the larger picture. By incorporating User Experience into the product-development process early on and applying UX principles and practices throughout a project, you can impact a company’s brand presence and even disrupt the norms for an entire industry’s connected customer experience.

Elevating your vantage point to this broader perspective lets you not only identify what might affect an individual project or company, but also what effect it could have on an industry at large. Companies that recognize the importance of and capitalize on this elevated perspective can better understand how UX research and design can present opportunities for expanding the scope of their current service and product offerings. Simply put, being vertically agnostic means addressing the ways in which problems affect an entire user journey, not just the problems that a specific project addresses.

Ecommerce giant Amazon provides a prime example of this approach. Over the years, Amazon has broadened their business beyond their ecommerce site, moving further and further into the hardware space with products such as the Kindle Voyage, HDX tablet, and Fire TV Stick. As Peter Larsen, Amazon VP, remarked about the new Amazon Fire TV, “We needed to invent and simplify on behalf of our customers.”

The simplification to which Larsen refers is actually a form of forward integration and business model innovation that would not have been possible if Amazon had stopped at delivering a great online store. Had the company not investigated more deeply how they could translate their insights and efforts within the context of ecommerce into influencing the overall user experience of the consumer-product industry, none of these disruptive hardware products would have made it to the marketplace.

As UX experts, our jobs involve more than ensuring that our target users’ behaviors, desires, and needs are congruent with a final product’s functionality and usability. With our breadth and depth of knowledge of users’ and customers’ connected lifestyles, we can also identify how and where user-experience details should affect the larger scheme of things—such as a company’s industry or even other public sectors that these industries impact.

Scaling the Industry Walls

Maintaining a holistic view of user experience and applying UX concepts outside the verticals of product development can help companies to identify latent customer needs and develop more efficient processes. The story of the Aravind Eye Care System (AECS) and its founder, Dr. Venkataswamy demonstrates the strategic application of UX principles and processes—injecting knowledge that derives from product design into envisioning a company’s overall business strategy and model.

The innovative, industry-changing practices of AECS provide a prime example of what it is possible to accomplish when a company does not restrict itself to developing solutions within the frameworks that its industry has established. By looking outside these norms, AECS was able to identify applicable best practices from another industry and adapt and incorporate them into their business practices to deliver higher efficiency, economic success, and a better, overall experience.

After his retirement from medicine, Dr. V—as he is best known—established the first Aravind Eye Hospital in the late 1970s, with the goal of eliminating needless blindness in India. After 30 plus years of offering free or significantly reduced-cost eye surgeries, AECS now averages over 2,000 operations a year per surgeon. In contrast, the average number of surgeries for eye surgeons in the US is around 125. In addition to achieving these staggering numbers, AECS has also become one of the premier eye-care hospitals in the world.

However, this success has not come without its challenges. In the early 1990s, AECS faced a shortage of post-surgery contact lenses, which all patients needed for their operation to be an eyesight-saving success. For many non-profit organizations such as AECS, whose operations are mainly funded by charitable donations and grants, such a problem would have seemed insurmountable. AECS, however, did not look to other eye-care clinics and hospitals for possible solutions to their problem. Instead, they drew inspiration from startups and entrepreneurs.

Call it out-of-the-box thinking, divergent processing, or even innovation. In any case, the result was that Dr. V and his team were able to develop an entirely new and innovative business strategy that provided the resources the surgeons needed to perform more than 15 times as many surgeries as other eye hospitals, at a fraction of the cost. With the help of entrepreneur David Green, AECS was able to form partnerships, engage in technological development, and raise venture capital—activities and skills that we typically see in technology companies or venture-funded startups—to establish a private, on-site, manufacturing company called Aurlab.

UX Thoughts, Business Actions

As we have seen from the stories of Ford, Amazon, and AECS, applying UX principles and practices can benefit businesses and organizations of all types. As a UX consultancy that works in a variety of industries, ÄKTA often finds that what would be an innovative solution for one company is actually part of another industry’s standards. Identifying such overlaps between industries would prove infinitely more difficult if we remained focused on only one or two primary industry verticals. By choosing to be vertically agnostic, we can deliver greater insights to our clients, while producing highly informed and thoroughly vetted solutions for projects across multiple industries.

Innovation can take many different forms as we saw in the way Alan Mulally used his expertise to make an impact at Ford, Amazon pushed the boundaries by looking at the bigger picture, and AECS looked at industries outside its own to develop a new business strategy. Thus, while expertise is extremely beneficial—and in many cases, necessary—an over-reliance on expertise in a particular industry can sometimes prevent companies from developing truly unique solutions and products.

Nevertheless, to drive innovation, it is sometimes necessary to gain new perspectives and deeper understanding by combining ignorance with expertise. The ability to bring different perspectives to products, businesses, and industries is one of the reasons the people and companies that I’ve mentioned in this article have achieved such success through innovative, user-centered design. 

Senior UX Researcher at Salesforce

Chicago, Illinois, USA

David MierkeDavid performs UX research at ÄKTA, a digital user experience product design and development consultancy in downtown Chicago. Previously, David has worked as a researcher and designer at a product innovation company in Los Angeles, as well as a design and branding firm in New York City. His primary focus is on discovering latent user needs to help executives gain a clearer understanding of strategic business goals and develop strategic and tactical approaches to projects.  Read More

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