Changing peer perspectives: The first step to designing better experiences

7 min read Nathan Shedroff

Nathan Shedroff, co-author of Blind Spot: Illuminating the hidden value in business, explains why changing peer perspectives is crucial to designing better experiences for customers. 

Change is never easy (no kidding, right?). But, we all know it’s a constant and something we have to deal with regardless of what we want. The point is that many people actively resist change, even if it’s “change for the better.” Of course, who it’s better for can often be in dispute. Change in the interest of customers is often greeted with less-than-enthusiastic involvement even when it’s good for the organization. Instead, progress that requires change in operations can be a hassle for everyone in the organization.

Still, a lot has been written on how to go about this successfully, both strategically and tactically. One of the best books I’ve ever read on this subject is Bob Doppelt’s “Leading Change Toward Sustainability”. Even if your change doesn’t deal with sustainability as a topic, his wisdom about how to make change in organizations will help regardless of the topic of change.

Making a case for change

What I want to discuss is an even more difficult kind of change: that of personal worldview. For many people involved with customer-centric innovation, we uncover unexpected truths about customer behavior, intent, needs, and desires. We come to understand things about our customers and their world that challenge previously held beliefs, understandings, and expectations. And, many of these lead to a confrontation for ourselves and our peers about not only who our customers are and how to reach them but one within us that the things we “know“ about the world may not be “true.” I use quotes, here, because these are slippery terms and it’s possible for several truths to be true at once, as well as what we know and what others do.

This is where things can get tricky interesting. Say your boss or client gave you the goal of redesigning the online commerce system or organization’s Facebook site. Great, that’s clear. But, after great customer research (and great means: qualitative insight that researches decision-drivers that include emotions, identity, and meaning factors) you find that the commerce system or Facebook page works fine and what’s broken is something else entirely? Deciding what to prioritize may be outside of your control. You may not even have the credibility with your bosses, clients, or peers to question priorities. Yet, you may see better opportunities that would pay-off better than how the project was defined originally.

Worse still is when you uncover something that runs afoul of “commonly-held” beliefs about your market, customers, industry, or life in general. That’s when things get really tricky interesting!

This isn’t hypothetical. Everyday, my co-authors and I run into these myths within their professional work. Steve Diller and his team at Scansion, especially, specialize in the kind of research that uncovers insights and opportunities that catch their clients off-guard and, sometimes, conflict with both what they were hired to do and what their clients think is in the realm of possibilities.

Our worldviews are incredibly powerful. They don’t just define us, they define how we understand the world around us, how it works, and how people behave within it. It’s how we make sense of everything around us and a challenge to that is the most fundamental challenge we can confront. And, as I’m sure you’ve experienced, it’s possible for people to have very different worldviews. Some people see the world as inherently unstable and dangerous. Their prioritization of security as a core meaning, combined with their expression of security as requiring weapons to defend themselves, leads them to certain kinds of value. Yet, it’s just as “true” that some people see the world as inherently full of wonder and opportunity. Yes, there is sometimes some danger, but they prioritize different core meanings and they express these with different values.

In the business world, these world views can range from “customers are stupid and will accept anything we tell them” to “customers are motivated by their values and want products and services that align with those.” Some believe that “people won’t pay more for quality” (when the evidence is that many people routinely pay more for things) and others believe the opposite. Are your customers motivated only by the lowest price or do they engage on emotional or identity levels and respond to “brand promises.” Both can be true, even in the same market — especially if that market is defined demographically.

But, what can we do about this?

Introducing better opportunities

If you sense no openness to new ideas from your bosses, peers, or clients. You may just have to write-off that project. However, if you think they will respond to reason — and the promise of better opportunities — you need to present your findings exactly in those terms: better opportunities. This means you need to show how their current market segments are confused and unhelpful. It may be extra work but if you can segment customers by those who respond to different value propositions and show the potential return for those better value levels (usually those where customers engage with premium value: emotional, identity, and meaningful levels) you have a great basis for changing the strategy. However, this requires you to do more than just present personas and scenarios. You’ll need to research and calculate the financial return these better customers can bring. Even if you don’t succeed in changing the current project parameters, you may very well set the stage for a better set of conditions and assumptions on the next one.

For the most part, any businessperson will respond to opportunities that look more lucrative (though whether they’re willing to work toward better, longer-term value, instead of short-term returns, may be an issue). I know this goes much further than the skills and experience of most UX professionals, but if you want the influence you think you deserve, it will require wading into the business side of things. That’s where strategy is set. The most common complaint I hear about interface projects is that the goals are set unhelpfully (or wrong) before the UX team even sees the project brief. That’s because the project is responding to strategy that was likely set with a pale understanding of real customers’ real decision-drivers. Anyone who is on the front-lines working to understand customers in a qualitative way likely has a better understanding of what drives customer decisions than anyone in the marketing department and everyone “in the room” or “at the table” when strategy is set.

In essence, you don’t just need to present a story of better customers. You need to present a story of a better (more lucrative) company after responding to those customers.

Yes, ideally, that’s the job of the marketing department but if they’re like the majority of marketing departments, they’re focused on what they want to tell the market and what their competition is doing, not what customers are trying to tell companies and what they would respond better to.

Suggesting to your organization that it should do things differently is never easy. Suggesting that they get into new businesses and offerings is even more difficult, but if the company purports to care about innovation, this is exactly what has to happen. History is rife with examples of companies that couldn’t evolve into new offerings. Some were felled by inept implementation, some by underestimating the transition, but the worst fail from willful myopia. They simply don’t want to accept that the world may be different than they assume — or want it to be.

You may need to find new allies in making a compelling case for change. You may need to employ new skills (or find those with those skills who can help you). If you can’t find the right allies in your organization, try looking outside. If you can’t justify the budget for a consultant with the right skills, look to a local business program who might have students who can build these insights (and financials, even) for you in return for valuable work experience. The program I started and used to run, the Design MBA program at California College of the Arts, is constantly looking for organizations to work with and those students provide such great value that it’s not uncommon for the students to be offered jobs after presenting their findings.

You might also look for examples within your industry (or your redefined markets) of premium products that do offer such a value proposition where customers are willing to pay more than what you offer. You need to describe the entire service ecosystem in order to accurately reflect the opportunity and your organization may just be too far from delivering something comparable (and your company or client peers may not even see, let alone value, parts of that ecosystem). But, if you hope to design experiences better than simply redressing them in nicer imagery or wireframes, this is the right path to get you there.

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Nathan Shedroff