Have you ever felt a certain disconnect between a company’s declaration of intended value versus the experience you get from its products and services? Perhaps it’s those cool-looking shoes that score style points but don’t deliver comfort in your training. Or a software package that promises to streamline processes but ends up being even more complicated to use.
These problems stem from a mismatch between design intent and the needs of the end-user. They can be fixed, but only if the necessary adjustments are made to business operations. And making that change comes from both the top end, where designers work and the bottom, where customers experience and give feedback.
A repetitive and deliberate process
Product development can involve multiple tests and refinements, as was the case in developing WD-40, a product whose name refers to the number of attempts at perfecting the formula. Alternatively, it might take just one ‘eureka’ moment to develop a perfect product. Post-It notes are a remarkable example of the latter, as the adhesive used was developed even before designers identified the problem it could solve.
These examples illustrate the contrast between intentional design and serendipity. A happy accident could give you the exact product you need. But you’re far more likely to need a long and arduous process of improving through small iterations.
For designers to make progress, they have to understand the needs of their target audience. That knowledge fuels their ability to make better versions of a product or deliver greater value through services. Without it, they risk getting caught up in solving problems that don’t matter and ultimately alienating their consumers.
The need for empathy
In customer service, there’s growing concern among employees that AI will take over their jobs. We actually see it happen on countless websites and apps. Try to contact a business online, and your query will probably be handled by a chat or email bot, at least on the initial round.
AI can quickly index a knowledge base to come up with accurate, in-depth answers. But it routinely fails to deal with the fact that humans aren’t, in the words of Daniel Kahneman, “thinking machines that feel. We are feeling machines that think.”
Divorce attorneys can tell you that despite one side having a stronger case than the other, outcomes aren’t always so clear-cut. Feelings always come into play. This is true even in mundane matters. We like to think that we’re rational about evaluating products and services, but our reaction usually comes from the gut.
Understanding this aspect of human nature requires empathy. It’s a vital human skill that AI can never replace. And it will ensure that customer service workers (the skilled ones, anyway) will continue to have jobs. They can talk to people and perceive their deeper underlying concerns with a company’s offerings.
Making relevant change happen
Beyond the introductory experience of the point-of-sale, customer service is usually the frontline of a company’s interactions with their audience. You buy products in-store (retail or online), and that’s where first impressions are usually made. But long-term relationships form as you start using them, exploring features, finding what works for you and what doesn’t.
If something doesn’t live up to expectations, it motivates customers to contact support. They want to get what they paid for or let the people in charge know that something’s wrong. It puts them in a prime position to capture feedback and relay it from the bottom to the top.
But things don’t always play out this way in practice. Service representatives may not be empowered by management. Often, they may not even be directly employed by that company, as the work instead gets outsourced to third-party professionals who have no real investment in making experiences better. The potential for feedback to translate to meaningful change at the top is wasted.
Businesses must stop wasting this resource for improvement. Designers can’t foresee all how a user might ‘hack’ their product. Ultra-light trainers might be painful when running on surfaces other than synthetic track. An all-in-one CRM might benefit from modular design as some clients would only need specific features for their business.
These are things you only find out after spending more time ‘in the field,’ so to speak, discovering the kinks and quirks of a product. It’s the sort of time that designers are rarely afforded under the typical production schedule. That process can be greatly accelerated by drawing upon customers’ aggregate experiences, but only if a company makes an effort to let their voices be heard.