At Open we identify and examine customer issues. At DNA we deliver on that thinking.

"We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." - Albert Einstein

Making ideas work

Making organisations human – Engaging customers in design.

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In my previous post I shared some initial reflections from my years of creating products, services, and organisational systems as an ‘Experience Designer’. I described the effect of this work as: 'making organisations human', and said that I would flesh this out by looking at the effect of this work on the customers, employees and senior leaders of these organisations. In this post I'm going to start by focusing on what happens when customers are engaged in the design of products and services, rather than just the use of them.

I recently worked on a project developing a new online service for legal firms. We created a project team inside the company we were working with and quickly mocked up a series of screenshots that could be clicked though, looking like a real web-based service. Then we headed out to the legal firms to meet with potential customers. 

We arrived at a small legal firm to meet one of the associates I’ll call Chris, who invited us through to their boardroom. We passed the walls of paper files, and the office of one of his colleagues. We were already starting to get a feel for what everyday life is actually like for Chris. 

Once we sat down and had been offered a glass of water, we opened the laptop and began to show Chris what we had started to build on screen, generated in part from a conversation with Chris a few weeks back. He became more and more animated as he found parts he liked, and others he would change. And as we discussed these changes, Chris effectively joined our design team.

As we left his legal firm Chris spoke of his appreciation, that the company would take the time to come and see him and involve him in this new service that would be coming to market.

This isn't an isolated story.

I have been in many design sessions with customers over the years, working on a wide range of new products and services, and there is one important thing that stands out: customers love it. They love contributing to something new that is actually going to be built and offered to the market. They love having their experience heard, and needs responded to. They love engaging in ‘producing’, and they are good at it. All it takes is for them to be engaged in a part of the design process where they can actually add valuable input.

Typical customer engagements can be disconnected across the organisation and can leave customers feeling like their contributions lack value, or any positive effect on the organisation. The design process helps to engage customers where they can add most value. Customers often find it much easier to contribute to a design process when they are asked questions requiring a story to answer, where they can just share their experience and not worry about getting the answer ‘wrong’. Also, putting prototype solutions in front of customers for comment or change is much better than the complex questions like “what would you like?” These types of ways of engaging customers can effectively invite them onto your design team.

It turns out that customers can be great designers.

Engaging customers in the design process gives them the opportunity to articulate subtle changes in their needs. It also helps businesses track what is desirable to customers, and not simply focus on cheaper ways to build and sell current products or services.

But why aren’t customers always involved in this way?

The mental model of ‘producers’ and ‘consumers’ has been around for a long time. The logic is simple: the ‘producers’ create and deliver products and services, and ‘consumers’ purchase and use them. This model has embedded itself in the practices of organisations for generations. In the design process, this divide is challenged. ‘Consumers’ are engaged in generating, and testing new solutions for their needs. It unlocks them from simply being consumers, making their experience more human.

For organisations, entering the world of the customer reveals the contexts their products and services are used, helping to prioritise internal efforts to meet changing human needs.

Making organisations human not only has this effect on customers like Chris, but also on the employees who go out to meet him in these design projects. So in the next post I'm going to focus on the effect of the people working in an organisation can have beyond their functional part of the organisation. Then in the final post I'll focus on how these design projects help executives handle growth and complexity as they make their organisation human. 

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