Business Design as a User Experience

How we design our business is as important as how we design our product or service.

This is integral to Bit Thinking–all performance is resultant of a thorough design discipline.  You can’t expect business of bad design to survive or outlast the market.  Bad design is unprofitable.  Bad design kills.

Whitney Hess is a well-known UX designer I first heard of during an intro UX workshop taught by Cielo through Skillshare.  Whitney is most known for her Slideshare presentation: “Design Principles:  The Philosophy of UX” .  She recently made a post about expanding her reach from experience design to business design—which she forwarded to my mentor, Steve Farber.

Three quotes from her post–User Experience is Not Enough–really stood out for me.

“You must design an extraordinary company first”


People–both internal employees & external clients–are the heart of business design. You can have a great sales revenue model—but if your people hate sales, you’re broke.  How your organization acts towards itself will be reflected in how it treats its clients.  Well designed internal engagement drives positive external engagement.  You won’t have a great client experience if your company experience sucks.

Good to Great’s second principle is “First who, then what”.  Jim Collins isolates three truths about having the right people onboard first, then designing the business around that them:

  • If you begin with “who” rather than “what”, you can more easily adapt to a changing world.
  • If you have the right people on the bus, the problem of how to motivate and manage people largely goes away.
  • If you have the wrong people, it doesn’t matter whether you discover the right direction; you still won’t have a great company.

It’s easier to do this when we’re starting out—that’s what makes startups such an alluring draw.  The team shapes and pivots because there is not much on the line.  Unfortunately, most managers inherit their teams and processes.  By inheriting a team and function that’s entrenched over time—changing direction becomes a different, more difficult undertaking.  Entrenched  people and roles don’t change because the inertia and comfort of the status quo is too hard to resist.

Change is possible—but poorly designed change become poorly executed and retrenches the current state.

In situations where change must happen for an old team—Topgrading offers an accessible seven-step process for guiding people through the change so they take ownership of it themselves.  To assist people in making that change, a culture of empathy is important.  Whitney defines empathy as “the ability to identify with another person’s experiences, even if you have never directly experienced them yourself”.  Exactly like Habit 5 of the Seven Habits—using empathy allows the team to realize change is up to them to enact.  And it’s better for everyone if the team self-selects to accept and iterate that change vice having to be fired or removed.

So—design comes first.  Whether for a new team or a major modification to an old one.

“Creating effective user experiences requires not just an understanding of human-computer interaction, but more importantly of human-human interaction”

A common refrain I hear in my work is the tool or solution driving the analysis of the problem—“We need training because…”; “An app would work because…”.  It is important to know that just because a solution works for a competitor doesn’t mean it will work for you.  The computer is another solution–we don’t start with what apps, tools, or buttons we want in a product–we start by finding out why the product is important.

True interaction isn’t tool dependent.  Tools and solutions should be seamless and transparent to true interaction.  As a side effect—bad tools can degrade communication and form silos and divisions.

A lot of these tools are really trinkets and artifacts—wants, not needs.  They are status symbols and not essential to the mission.  Look at this New York Times Interview of Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote:

We have a flat and very open structure. Nobody has an office. In fact, there are no perks that are signs of seniority. Obviously, there are differences in compensation, but there are no status symbols. You certainly don’t get a better seat or any of that kind of stuff, because they’re just unnecessary. They create artificial barriers to communication. They create artificial things that people focus on rather than just getting their job accomplished. We try to have an organization that just helps you get your work done, and then it’s my job to eliminate all of the risks and all the distractions so you can just focus on achieving. That attracts people who are primarily motivated by how much they achieve.

Something else Evernote did—they got rid of the office phone.  Given how many passive and active communication tools they already have—losing the office phone seemed too easy not to do.  It was a crutch for their culture—it didn’t advance or support any interaction.  Computers can be the same way—we can cower behind the tool as an excuse for not making contact (“Well I sent you an email”).  Which perpetuates silo-building and miscommunication.

Sometimes—you may have to fly 5000 miles for 1 meeting.  It will be important enough for you to shoulder the cost.

That’s an extraordinarily designed interaction to ensure you have the right communication.

Design for the interaction you want your team to have first—then find solutions to enable that interaction.  Once the organization is happy with how it communicates within itself—it will be a better communicator to clients.  Organizations with a positive back office won’t need a front office—everyone is essentially the front office, a marketer, and a brand ambassador.

“I’m tired of the silos and turf wars and egocentricity.  It’s helping no one, and it needs to stop.”

I completely agree.  Unfortunately–I believe that’s an ideal premise.  The optimal and actual conditions are a little more realpolitik.  Charles Duhigg providing a compelling metaphor in his book “The Power of Habit”:

Actual Premise:   Companies aren’t families.  They’re battlefields in civil war.

Optimal Premise:  Organizational habits offer a basic promise:  If you follow the established patterns and abide by the truce, then rivalries won’t destroy the company, the profits will roll in, and eventually, everyone will get rich.

The actual/optimal and optimal/ideal gaps are the heart of my job as a performance designer.  I uncover the client’s ideal premise, analyze their current state (actual premise), and create an optimal premise based on more realistic criteria.  In the end—as much as we don’t want the negativity of the culture like silos, turf wars, and power trips–they are side effects which are at best minimized as an organization grows.

One of my best tools for determining where these weaknesses in an organization may be present is in the concept of framing—determining the dominant and supporting frames an organization operates under.  In thinking about organizations as cultures, in flux, hierarchical, organic, machine, or any other context—Morgan’s seminal work “Images of Organization”  explains how the right frame “exerts a formative influence on science, on our language, and on how we think, as well as on how we express ourselves on a day-to-day basis”.

The right frame reveals where these weaknesses are showing up—and that revelation is the first step in the change process to reducing their impact on the team and the bottom line.

I agree it needs to stop—but I think the optimal solution is to reveal, reform, or reduce.  Design helps to not build these weaknesses into new businesses—and analysis helps to reveal and reduce them in entrenched businesses.  There will always be cases of suboptimal performance because of silos, big egos, and turf battles.  They don’t help anyone—but stopping them becomes asymptotic.  It’s like six sigma—all we need are three sigmas to radically transform the team and company.

Getting there qualitatively is the hard part.

Whitney’s absolutely right — business design outweighs experience design.  Said another way—internal experience design is more important than external experience design.  As a performance designer—I have to believe in that potential for change.  I am a growing expert in the process in performance—and I believe business can be significantly remade.  Whitney has set an extremely high bar.  What do you think?

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