Think You're An Industry Leader? Not So Fast

Rather than strategizing against competitors, you should empathize with your customers. Everything else falls into place afterward.

I was recently at my bank, telling the branch manager that I don’t like its online banking system. She was literally offended: "But we are the best in our industry, I’ll show you the results of our survey." I said, "But it is not about how you measure up against other banks. You don’t solve my problems — you make things harder than they should be."

She scoffed at me, actually asking other members of her team to tell me that I was just hard to please, that they all have seen the survey results, and that they are number one! They may very well be the "top" bank in the country, but from the customer’s perspective, they are the worst online banking system in the country — that is, with the exception of all the other ones. And there is such an opportunity to make things better that one of their competitors will eventually leapfrog them and leave them wondering, What the hell happened?

This is the first mistake organizations make when thinking about digital interactions with their customers. They measure themselves against the competition instead of really understanding what their customers actually need. We’ve seen a hyper focus on user experience disrupt many industries. Facebook disrupting social. Apple disrupting music and smartphones. Google disrupting search. In each of these cases, the seemingly dominant incumbents were toppled by an experience that was easier to use and actually offered less in user-facing functionality.

A client once said to me:

We were so focused on how we were doing against our competition that we lost sight of our customers’ needs. We thought if we had 10% more features than we were 10% better. In reality, once we started asking our customers what they needed, we realized ease of use was more important than more features.

This shift in philosophy had significant results for their business. Once the application — which was built with a focus on the user — launched, their online revenue increased more than 500% within six months. Additionally, they saw a dramatic cost savings due to the increase in customers self-serving.

I’m not talking about your organization, right? You are customer focused! Customers are the center of your universe. Unfortunately, every organization in the world says that. Ask anyone at any business, "Does your company care about its customers?" Unless you are talking to a disgruntled employee, the answer is always yes. So, how do you translate your customer-centric values into better user experiences? In short, you gain empathy for them. Great applications are created by those who fully empathize with the user’s needs.

Steve Jobs is a genius product developer, and clearly Apple is a successful company, but he is his customer. He designs and builds things the way he wants to use them. The same is true for Facebook, which was designed by its primary user. But you are probably not Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg — you are likely nothing like your customers. At EffectiveUI, our clients ask us to build apps for people that are not us: doctors, salespeople, high school teachers, real estate agents, airline mechanics, office admins, retirees, etc. How could a team design an app for a salesperson if they’ve never carried a bag or for a teacher if they’ve never put a lesson plan together? It comes back to empathy. Our team must walk a day in the life of the person they are designing for and act as a proxy for the user in the design and integrations processes. This means they have to check their assumptions and egos at the door. I was once asked, "Is there such a thing as a stupid user?" The answer is no; there are only ignorant designers. Any good designer will tell you there’s no such thing as user error — anything the user can’t figure out is just bad design. A truly effective team is aware of their ignorance of their users’ needs and will refuse to operate in a vacuum of understanding.

The first step in creating user experiences that are truly differentiating is to stop thinking about differentiation and start feeling your customers’ pain firsthand. Some of our best design concepts come from watching a user write something on a sticky note, or print something out for comparison, or manipulate raw data in an Excel spreadsheet, or walk over to ask Joe in accounting a question. We are able to see these inefficiencies in a system only through careful observation and meaningful conversation.

To truly be a leader in your industry, have empathy for and a thorough understanding of your customer. Because if you don’t, someone else will, and you’ll be left trying to catch up.

[Top image, of a sheep, by Dave_S.]

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  • Ehtisham Rao

    process begets technology begets customer experience which is rarely at the heart of decision making and hence missing by design. Great point about chasing competition on acquiring capabilities rather than redefining customer experiences. good read.

  • Gaurav Kapil

    A simple yet so effective point brought out. I see tremendous implication in HR. Year after year we in HR create complex programs under a mirage that more complexity is equal to more success with employees.

    Taking cues from Sheena Iyenger's research on choice I'll say that complexity impresses almost every time but it is simplicity which sticks almost every time.

  • David Kaiser

    When a customer / client gives you feedback, the only two appropriate responses are "thank you" and "tell me more." Arguing is never right. 

    David Kaiser, PhD
    Time Coach to Extraordinary Leaders

    "Arthur had Merlin
    Luke had Obi-Wan
    Buffy had Giles
    You have Me"

  • Greenhorn Gardening

    Wow! It all comes back to this basic business principle: provide products and services that people want.

  • Bekvik

    reminds me of shopping for shoes in eastern Europe cca 1990.
    Expensive Italian brand shoe store but not a popper fit for my size 14 EEE foot;
    sales ladies response:... these are great shoes, you are just spoiled...".

  • Timothy Wikander

    Wonderful article. New and different can be fun. But in the long run, if it isn't enjoyable to use then it's just more rubbish...and we don't need anymore of that.

  • Alvaro Costa

    Take today's smartphones: to make a lousy call you have to choose whether you want to do the call over skype or regular line, you have to wait until it does some internal task which takes all the CPU or whatever, if if you touch the screen at the wrong place it opens up some unwanted application, etc.

    And if they are updating some software or using 100% of the CPU they will not answer any calls as they are too busy for that.

    In other words, if you need to call 911 or receive an emergency call you will probably DIE.

    That is a prime example of "CUSTOMER FIRST"! :P

  • Mal Jago

    @Anthonyfranco great article and a discussion I have with clients all the time.

  • josegonzalezdamico

    Great post and straight to the point: Anything the user can’t figure out is just bad design. UX rules.

  • ScottDWitt

    This is absolutely essential thinking for 21st century entrepreneurs who are so narrowly focused on technology.

    Check out this article from 2009 that provides some interesting and troubling statistics about customer dis-satisfaction and executive cluelessness.


    - Nearly half of consumers (47%) say they don't believe company executives
    understand their experiences, citing problems such as rude customer
    service staff or employees who provide the wrong information or never
    solve the customer's problem.

    - More than one-third (41%) of the customers
    who take the time to complain don't think companies listen to or act on
    their feedback.

    - On average, more than half (of customers) will defect--leaving a company flatly--based
    on bad customer experiences, without ever telling the company why.

    - Nearly nine out of 10 customers will tell their friends and colleagues
    about their bad experiences, creating a negative ripple effect in the
    prospective customer base that has serious implications for a company's
    future success. Yet the executives surveyed thought that only 20% of
    customers shared the news about their bad experiences--a significant
    mismatch with the customer view.

    - the biggest misunderstanding among executives? If customers don't
    complain to them, it means they don't have a problem and everything is
    fine. This is the silent but deadly company killer.

    Entrepreneurs Take Note:  service and process-oriented innovations can much more valuable to customers, and much harder for competitors to copy, than technology-based innovations. The book Mavericks at Work is a great introduction.

  • Argus Insights, Inc.

    Totally agree!  If we are not making good experiences for our customers, who cares?!?!  Product Experience data is becoming more available (Argus Insights) enabling companies to (1) back roadmap decisions with both qualitative and qualitative data (2) create experiences that people actually want, and (3) release iterative changes based on real-time feedback.

  • Bonnie L Nadri

    Great article; this kind of "long view" is not common, but it definitely should be.

  • Anthony Franco

    It was a great pleasure to write for Fast Company. Thanks for the opportunity!