I recently went online to pay a credit card bill with a well-known financial institution. Upon logging in, I was presented with a promotional advertisement for the company’s iPad application. As a designer, I was naturally curious as to how the app differed from the Web experience, assuming it might just surpass my expectations. And why not? The iPad presents a blank slate on which many organizations can create a unique experience free from legacy constraints inherent in a long-standing Web application. With this in mind, I quickly abandoned my bill-paying task to download the application on the iPad. A few minutes later, I was happily logged in and navigating the iPad application.
The interface was slick. But there was one major issue: I couldn’t do what I originally set out to do—I couldn’t pay my bill. Not only that, but the iPad app had a completely different look and feel from the Web application. Ultimately, it was a confusing and disappointing experience and convinced me to stick with the bank’s old-school Web interface for the foreseeable future.
How does this happen? My hunch is that this design fail was the result of designing in a vacuum. This generally happens in one of two ways:
- "Expert" design: When the design of a product (or service) is considered without understanding the needs of those who will be using it. While there are cases where expert design may be appropriate, it’s also quite risky. Without user insight and feedback, you have little way of knowing whether your new product will resonate with its intended audience, yet it happens all the time.
- Siloed design: When the design of a product (or service) occurs without a truly cross-functional and collaborative team effort—that is, when design happens in its own functional silo within an organization. Not surprisingly, the finished product doesn’t necessarily mirror what the designer had intended.
At EffectiveUI, we see examples of this all the time. Aside from the fact that large organizations struggle to understand their customers’ needs as they relate to a changing digital ecosystem, these organizations also create (or inherit) false internal structures that prevent great design work from happening in the first place. It’s all too common to see an organization where the Web team is a completely distinct unit from the mobile team.
Here’s the problem: The end user doesn’t care how your company is structured. Customers view brands as a unified entity, and they expect that brand’s value to be delivered across all channels with an equal degree of integrity. The good news is that the digital landscape is forcing all of us to re-think how we work. The bad news is that we’re trying to crawl out of a work style that was better designed for Ford’s assembly line than for digital ecosystem consistency.
Personally, I’m excited. While there’s certainly a ton of disruption (and serious failure) happening across many industries that long thought they were invincible, there are some incredibly bright spots across the businesses that are reconsidering a new way of working so that design’s true values can be brought forward. In a world full of sameness, design can act as a key differentiator. Organizations that never had a design department are now hiring designers at a rapid clip. That said, there’s a ton of work to be done. Adding designers to your staff won’t make much of a difference if the organization can’t understand its customer needs or create a brand-consistent digital ecosystem that serves those needs.
So, how do we move forward? At a fundamental level, we need to resist the way we’ve been taught work happens: Departmental and functional silos are working models of a past era. Obviously, some of the issues addressed here occur at a very deep organizational level. While outside consultants have been brought into large organizations for years to diagnose certain organizational challenges, I believe that designers are in a prime position to observe, interpret, and model back a different way of working.
If we can agree that consumers see a brand as having one "voice," I’d argue that the internal organization’s infrastructure should be set up to reflect that singular voice: No more Web team, separate from the mobile team, separate from the development team. The unifying principles that guide these teams should center around what customers actually need, not what new technologies we want to throw at them. These needs exist regardless of platform, and they act as a sounding board in conjunction with the core business objectives.
Telling designers to "create organizational change" is like saying "we put our customers first." Both things are easier said than done. What I’m advocating is simply changing the conversation at a grassroots level by modeling different behaviors.
Your challenge? Re-think the way you’ve been working. Break your old habits. For example, rather than generating a 50-slide PowerPoint to sell your new digital concept, facilitate a conversation with your team in a workshop. Rather than presenting a fully baked concept, sketch something out for early feedback. Present a prototype for user feedback instead of launching a fully functional application. Get out of the design vacuum, bring other perspectives to the table, and ideally, get others to reconsider how they’ve been working to date.
Generating space for design is challenging amidst the general pace of business, but with the right mindset, dedicated team members, proper cross-functional collaboration, and a clear focus on the voice of the customer, digital products and services can be conceived with a fresh perspective.