Human-centred Design & Organisations

The Business Side of Positive Experiences : Putting humans at the centre of processes. This is the core premise of a design approach called "Human-centred Design".

May 24, 2023

Imagine you want to sign up for a service. You go on the multilingual website, and you select your mother tongue. Convinced by the delightfully written content and the streamlined explanations of how the service works, you sign up. But then, there is a break in the experience: Every following communication you receive from the organisation is written in a way that you hardly understand it: The instructions are complex and contradictory, and you keep asking yourself why this service does not work like you expected. What is more, you cannot help but feel accused from the careless communication about “what you have done wrong”. Finally, what is supposed to be your language is difficult to understand for you as a native speaker, having no resemblance with the carefully crafted copy text on the website. Increasingly, it becomes apparent to you that the organisation has put a lot of effort into acquiring you as a customer but invests a lot less into keeping you as a customer. Some weeks later, a friend tells you that she is thinking about signing up for the same kind of service that you are using and speaks about the same delighted and streamlined impressions from the website like you have witnessed. What do you tell her?

As this scenario illustrates, bad experiences can reduce trust, destroy customer relationships, and cost money. Experiences also evolve over time: What started as a promising customer-business relationship can deteriorate if an organisation does not pay careful attention to every touchpoint with customers. However, organisations can do something about it. In fact, everything that organisations do impacts experiences of customers, users, and other stakeholders. Fortunately, organisations can do a lot to enhance the experiences of their customers and users, but to do so, they have to put the humans really at the centre of their processes.


How Human-centred Design creates positive experiences

Putting humans at the centre of processes: This is the core premise of a design approach called “Human-centred Design”. Building on a foundational research phase identifying the core needs of the target audiences regarding a particular product or service, Human-Centred Design identifies user requirements (equally important as business and technology requirements) and then iteratively creates and validates ideas for solutions. Today, human-centred design is vital for creating positive user experiences (UX) and customer experiences (CX) and an internationally established standard.

Figure 1 Human-centred design process

and solving the right problem. Rather than relying on one’s own ideas or on purely technological aspects, human-centred design starts with identifying what humans want to achieve and builds products and services around this. Consequently, human-centred design builds on an iterative process, constantly involving the target audiences throughout from the first, early ideas to the finished, constantly validated solution.

This idea of “design” is a significant shift from associations with something purely visual, resembling an “add-on” that one could add in the final stages of development to “make things look nice”. Indeed, there are good arguments to care for truly human-centred design, as several studies show:

  • By identifying real user needs, human-centred design can reduce costs. For example, testing and refining the Mozilla support website decreased workload of support staff.
  • Forrester Research found that positive experiences increase customers’ willingness to pay by 14.4%. As FastCompany puts it: “Every dollar spent on UX brings in between $2 and $100 dollars in return.”
  • Furthermore, positive experiences make it less likely that customers switch to a competitor (-15.8%, according to the Forrester study). Retaining existing customers is much less expensive than acquiring new customers, and positive experiences dramatically increase the likelihood to recommend a particular product or service.

Given these advantages, design has significant potentials for organisations. A human-centred mindset can even transform an entire organisation and raise its capacity to create positive experiences.


The Human-centred “Outside-In” Organisation

Products and services are not the only sources of experiences for customers and users. Instead, as outlined above, *anything* that the organisation does can create experiences. Therefore, mature organisations uncover the full potential of human-centred design by integrating it in all their organisational processes. Design correlates with several business metrics according to a 2018 study by the consulting agency McKinsey, making it a key consideration for successful digital transformation.

Here are six tips for getting started:

  1. Define organisational goals and translate them into experience goals: Obviously, organisations are driven towards specific organisational goals that define their success, whether they are market share, profit, number of booked courses, or number of publications, to name a few examples. The key to aligning organisations with human-centred quality is to translate these organisational values into goals for the experience of customers. Ask yourself: How should the experience look like in order to contribute to a particular organisational goal? For example, if the goal is to increase market share, a useful approach is to aim for experiences which are so good that customers readily share them with others by recommending an organisation. Such recommendations would contribute to higher market share.
  2. Create a vision of positive customer experiences: When you really want to change something in an organisation, an experience vision is a valuable method to drive this change, especially if it is created in a collaborative effort involving the different teams in an organisation. An experience vision describes what the organisation wants to achieve in terms of experience: How should users feel when solving particular tasks? Which impression should customers have when being in contact with the organisation? Such a vision focuses on the experience, not the product or service: As humans, we often have needs and goals beyond the specific product or service. In many cases, the product or service are not ends in itself, but a way to reach a particular goal or satisfy a specific need. For an organisation, a vision creates buy-in across different departments and defines an image of the future. The more concrete this image is, the better: Creating engagement and emotion is key in aligning stakeholders into what the organisation wants to achieve. In the example of increasing market share, we could create a vision that outlines how customers are becoming “fans” of an organisation. Draw a vivid picture of what this would look like!
  3. Define experience strategies to achieve the visions: While the vision aligns everyone in the organisation towards a common goal, it does not answer how the organisation gets there. Experience strategies are all about answering this “how” question. Experience strategies distinguish human-centred organisations from others: Without them, daily concrete activities (tactics) risk not to be aligned with organisational goals, and reaching an experience vision might become chance. Tools like Jim Kalbach’s UX Strategy Blueprint can help to get you started.
  4. Align daily activities with your strategy: Across the organisation, make sure that the concrete activities are aligned with your strategy. Validate their success with appropriate metrics. For example, recommendation metrics (e.g., Net Promoter Score) are useful to identify whether customers are really becoming “fans”. Clear objectives, as defined in an experience strategy, can help every employee to validate whether one’s daily activities contribute to reaching these objectives.
  5. Keep learning and iterate your experience strategies: Even the most carefully planned strategy must stand the test of time: Are we really getting closer to our experience vision? To answer such questions, organisations need to collect data on their customers’ experiences across all touchpoints. Truly customer-centric organisations are, as Microsoft puts it, “outside-in organisations“: They carefully consider customer feedback in all their decisions. Even more so, their decisions are based on data rather than on internal opinions: And all too often, our ideas and opinions are wrong because they do not address all perspectives, regardless how hard we try. The importance of testing and carefully designing positive experience cannot be over-estimated in such organisations.
  6. Keep an eye on organisational culture: While vision and strategies are important, we also need to consider the famous quote by the management expert Peter Drucker: “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast”. For example, while a strategy might encourage iterations, it will not be successful if the organisational culture does not create a work environment where errors are viewed as chances to learn. Human-centred design, therefore, always also has to work on organisational culture.

Figure 2 The relation of vision, strategy, and tactics for experiences

Coming back to our scenario from the beginning of this article, human-centred design could help the fictitious organisation to go beyond the surface level of their current website: Rather than stopping at the very first impressions, it would deeply understand the needs of customers and align the procedures of the service with its customers’ mental models. It would generate different solutions and carefully validate them, considering all touchpoint of customers and organisation. It would create a common vision about customers’ experiences throughout the organisation, helping all employees to align their activities with the overall experiential goals. And it would define strategies and work on the organisational culture, slowly enhancing the organisations’ capacities to create positive experiences. Ultimately, all of this enhances business. Human-centred design is, in this sense, not a visual add-on for the final stages of development, but a business-relevant task that needs to be carefully managed and executed by skilled professionals.

About the author:

Björn Rohles is a user experience training manager at the Digital Learning Hub in Luxembourg. His areas of expertise are user experience, digitalization, digital strategy, and human-centered design. Björn holds a Ph.D. in Human-Computer Interaction and a Magister in Media Studies. Björn is the author of two books on digital design and various professional and academic articles.


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