The Next Big Thing (That is Already Here)

Trends in the workplace are sometimes one-hit wonders that disappear as quickly as they start (Lean); Other times, really good ideas creep up on our work processes slowly, methodically, proving their value as more people adopt a particular way of working (Agile). And every so often, ways-of-work that are adopted by the few are of such great note that the rest of us can’t afford NOT to consider them; their impact so compelling that the rest of us scratch our heads and wonder ‘how did they do that?’ and ‘how can WE do that!’ This latter sort of phenomenon has surfaced over the last several years, having a significant impact on businesses both in the United States and Europe, and is poised to have an impact beyond trendy methodologies. It is simple if a bit nebulous, has a low barrier to entry, and has the potential to change… well, everything. What makes this trend really interesting is that it has no agreed-upon name, no clear leader, no best-selling book or much-hyped conference. It is practiced in a few different ways, but has a recognizable core that is proving, for about 45 of the top businesses in the United States, to be the Holy Grail of product development. And for those companies that have adopted it in the last 6-8 years, it has brought triple digit growth across the board. Triple. Digit. Growth. In eight years. It is most often called (customer) Experience Design, or Design Thinking; and for the 10% of the Fortune companies that have quietly given it a try, it has elevated their combined market performance to two hundred and thirty percent greater than the S&P Index – three hundred percent in European markets – not even Agile Development or Just In Time manufacturing managed to pull that off. But what, exactly, is Experience Design, or ‘XD?’ And why have 10% of the Fortune companies adopted it without telling anyone? For the latter question, the Fortune companies that dipped their toes into Experience Design in the mid 2000’s probably did so after watching Apple and Disney enjoy a meteoric rise to greatness. Apple and Disney were both doing everything their competitors were doing, with one notable exception: they were doubling down on design. Both companies had designers at the executive table, both companies touted great design to their internal teams as well as their customers, and both companies were spending double digits of their operating budgets on design and in the study of people. For any other Fortune company, this was a clear standout position; so a few tried it. A few brave companies shifted policies and budgets and personnel; and with the results now in, it looks like their decisions have been rewarded. Forrester Research calls the phenomena ‘customer experience’ design, Harvard and the Design Management Institute call it ‘design thinking,’ and the Design Council of Great Britain and University of Warwick simply call the phenomenon ‘design.’ But regardless of the nomenclature, these organizations use similar language to describe and measure what they are doing. They all agree that empathy for your customer, for example, is paramount. So is the proper funding of design, and the commitment to your customer’s experience at every company touch point. The British study defines design as a method for solving problems. Human problems. And the best way to solve problems? Study the people who are experiencing them. Design = solving problems. We like that. It makes the word ‘design’ about people, not just about beauty or function or an art better suited to the right-brained among us. And it is what XD has been about the whole time. You can call it CXD or UXD or Design Thinking or Human-Centered Design or HCI but here’s the magic bullet; they all do the same thing: build empathy. And what those brave Fortune companies discovered was pretty simple in the end; understanding your customer makes great products even better. Always. Not surprisingly, the studies also show us that building empathy for customers through XD works in all fields of business. So when you look at the varied industries of the companies who have adopted the practice you will notice that they aren’t all high tech, or even product specific. The varied firms studied by Forrester/Harvard and The Design Institute and The Design Council are names we all know for their recent successes: Nike, Apple, Disney, USAA, Virgin Atlantic, Herman Miller, IBM, Target, Starbucks, etc. etc. If you want to double or triple your competitor’s performance, adopt Experience Design. Take the leap; it isn’t that hard. You simply have to trust your customer to tell you what they want; and listen. It’s the listening where you want to put your design dollars, where you want to send every product/service manager to school. Practice XD by discovering empathy, and it won’t be long before you will hear your customers begin to say they ‘love’ whatever it is you build.   [author author_image=””]Brian Baker is the managing partner of First User Group, a design and strategic consulting company founded in 1994. His work and life revolve around strategic design and studying how people interact with products.[/author]