• 08.28.11

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.

Think You’re An Industry Leader? Not So Fast

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.]