It’s not just personal, it’s business: enabling great experiences through business design

I was once asked to consult on a massive replatforming project for a well known organisation in the UK. Their latest website had taken 2 years to design and build, had recently launched and was already out of date. When it was announced that they were going to redesign the website again, the people involved in the recent launch were understandably defensive and reticent about the project.


From the beginning, the problems were all encompassing; the existing technical solution was difficult to shift because of partnership issues, there were legacy teams who were underskilled, design decisions had been made by marketing folks with no expertise in user experience or design, the internal silos did not allow for collaboration or easy decision-making and and they weren’t adequately validating with users. Most importantly, it wasn’t clear who was signing off the project, what success looked like for everyone and what ‘done’ really meant.


Regardless, I walked onto the project as a user experience designer with a constructive attitude, assuming that all we needed was better communication, solid, thoughtful work and to move at pace, showing user validated results throughout. Unfortunately I had worked mostly in agencies at this stage of my career and had no real comprehension of how monolithic corporations really worked.


In the end, the beast was bigger than me. I realised this on the day that I presented wireframes with traffic light annotations, explaining that ‘red’ meant that the feature hadn’t been signed off, ‘amber’ meant that the feature was under consideration and ‘green’ meant that the feature had been agreed. One stakeholder then asked if they could have shades of green, and nobody seemed to think that this was an unreasonable request. I gave the project the unofficial title of ‘50 shades of green’ and chose to walk away after 8 months, which ended up being a good decision. In the end, it took nearly 3 years to launch the new site and it was, yet again, behind the curve by the time it did.

This is why experience strategists need to care about business design

Firstly, what is it? In its simplest terms, Business Design means changing the way a business works to accommodate a set of goals, nowadays often focussed on how to accommodate innovation. It should matter to experience strategists and designers because we have all tried to implement a great, contemporary user experience while watching it crumble under the weight of business inadequacies. So if you care about improving the chances of getting a great experience up and running, you need to do two things; change your attitude and skill up in the basics of business design.


To change your attitude, you need to think like a service designer. In service design, we understand the concept of above and below the waterline; above the waterline is what the customer sees and below the waterline are the departments and processes within the business that support the experience. Both are users of the same service or system. If, as a designer, you can be compassionate about consumers and empathise with their needs, you should be able to do the same for the people who support the consumer experience.


To skill up, you need to understand how and why decisions are made within a large business. Understand the systems, the political structure and the operational processes, but also understand how people are measured and compensated. If the person running the project is being incentivised based on sign-ups but your project is working to improve NPS scores, you aren’t necessarily going to agree on the way forward.


I also believe that, in order be more empathetic about how businesses work, every experience designer should work client-side at least once in their career, getting a clear understand around the complexity of operational decision-making.

How can a user experience designer get started in business design?

Firstly, your expertise lies in creating great experiences, so anchor everything back to that, but now you have to think much bigger. In UX, deciding how you should implement a new form to allow a user to return an item online is the type of challenge you might be asked to solve. A business designer has to make sure the teams affected by the returns are adequately placed to get the item from the customer and back on the shop floor as soon as possible and that they have a reasonable target to measure success against (timings, stock numbers etc). You need to prime yourself to think more holistically every time you are given an ‘above the waterline’ challenge.


Secondly, you can simply follow the same process you would if you were designing a user experience:


1. Understand the problem through research. Interview stakeholders, analyse workflows, observe how every touchpoint is managed and isolate the operational features that may prevent the implementation of a new experience. Turn all of those insights into a clear map of the problem, showing how the customer experience and the operational processes are connected.


2. Break down the problems into separate tasks and clarify what ‘done’ and success is for each. This is the part that most organisations find difficult to lock down, but it is essential for success. You will also need to understand who can do what in order to solve each problem, largely the skill of a talented project manager, but now something you need to understand.


3. Validate your solutions through incremental research with ‘users’. In UX, this means watching customers use your prototype. In business design, this means watching how the operational teams will use the new workflows.


How do you avoid a ‘50 shades of green’ scenario ?

Happily, I have also worked on large-scale projects that have been able to deliver a large beast of a project to exceptionally high standards with the support of the business. This usually happens when…

  • The organisation can enable a small team of only the most senior doers who have terrific chemistry as a group. By this I mean people who have got a tremendous amount of experience of actually delivering the buckets of work required, at pace and with accuracy, and who work together like a dream. They all have defined roles, everyone communicates regularly and work packages have clear, achievable but sharp deadlines. Very often, these people have gained the experience to work that way from being in an agency, where pace, quality and communication are key to everything.

  • The sign-off points will sit with one or two smart people who are aligned to the team and are positioned to open gates quickly.

  • The broader stakeholder group are provided with transparency but not given the power of sign-off. One way to do this is to present showcases every week to a fortnight, showing what has been achieved, how everything is being validated and what is coming up, allowing stakeholders to ask questions and making it clear that their input is valued but will not prevent progress. Fear of the unknown is one of the reasons why decisions are blocked, so this is one tried and tested way to solve that problem.


Is Business Design the new wave of Experience Design?

Yes. No. Maybe. Experience design has become more and more holistic with time. In the beginning, UX focussed on digital experiences and only on the technical solution and the IA. Then it incorporated user interface and content design. Then it broadened to incorporate the design of the flow between every touchpoint in a service and it evolved into a more strategic discipline. Now we know that good experiences cannot happen without the business supporting it.


What is clear is that large organisations struggle to support great user experiences and we have the skills to help them. Let’s get to it.