In my reading and podcast-listening lately, I’ve found myself more and more interested in business rules and principles. Part of the reason I’m doing all this reading is, I’m just curious about how things work. But I also noticed that the better I understand how a business operates, the more I can use design strategically to solve the right problems at the right time.
The principle of customer sacrifice
In The Experience Economy, B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore talk about the principle of Customer Sacrifice. This sacrifice happens when a customer settles for something they know is available, rather than what they’d truly want, if only they could have it. The book explains that even a business attentive to its customers will often miss the customer sacrifice. We often measure how well a business is doing for its customers by conducting customer surveys. These questionnaires are great at measuring satisfaction levels: the difference between what a customer expected, and what they think they’ve received.
Are you limiting the upside of customer UX?
But customer satisfaction is only a good retroactive measurement: how did we do, compared to how well our customers thought we might do? Satisfaction pre-supposes that the best a business could possibly do is within the bounds of what the customer already expected. This approach is limiting because it caps potential improvements at what the customers already knew they wanted. And, perhaps more importantly, satisfaction does not measure what the customer might have preferred but assumed they couldn’t have.
The Experience Economy uses soft drink preference to illustrate this second type of missed opportunity. On most airlines, if asked for a Pepsi, the attendant will offer a Coke instead. After a few flights, the customer would realize Pepsi is not an option and start asking for a Coke instead. If the airline were to measure customer satisfaction at this point, it would look like the customer received exactly what they wanted, and there’s no room for improvement. The airline would miss an existing opportunity to improve customer experience by providing a preferred drink.
Understand customer sacrifice through user interviews during design discovery
Customer sacrifice is one of the reasons unbiased, open-ended user interviews are so important. We normally conduct several of these as part of a design discovery. When you apply design thinking, and ask good questions you’ll get a broad set of insights from users. The interview style I always recommend, and practice myself, includes open-ended questions and touches on the experience around the product, not just the product itself. Doing this work takes time, but the quality and depth of insight is well worth the investment.
My favorite, most rewarding moments when leading a design project are when discovery wraps up, and I can confidently propose a way forward based on what we’ve learned. It usually goes something like this: here’s the problem you hired us to solve. But actually, your customers are experiencing a slightly different problem. And here’s how you can be even more successful in the future by solving that.
As a designer, it’s a humbling experience to be able to jump into a business problem, rapidly learn its key aspects from the folks who are infinitely more experienced in their field than I am, then talk to their users and other stakeholders… and come back with something new or surprising. How can we do this? Part of what helps us find these new things is a beginner’s mentality. (I call it: we’re not afraid to ask the “stupid” questions!) Another part is - applying the right process to a business problem at the right time will yield results. Design can still have a limited interpretation as “decorative stuff”, but more and more businesses are realizing design’s strategic role in tech.
Reading more business books, in a funny way, makes me more optimistic for the future of design. I’m making connections and realizing that the business world has terms for the stuff I’ve sometimes been doing intuitively, because it feels right and gives results.
If your company could benefit from a strategic design engagement, contact us.