Taking a customer-centric approach means basing UI design decisions on the desires and needs the customer. While the importance of customer-first thinking may seem obvious to product owners and designers, business stakeholders almost always have a different opinion about what's important, and they tend to push requirements that suit their needs over the customers.

In this episode, I make a case for why it's imperative UI design teams prioritize customer needs over the business, why business stakeholders should have a limited role in your design process, and I'll share two stories from in the trenches with clients where customer-first thinking failed and the impact it had on the business.


Note: this text transcript was not fully edited for spelling and grammar.

[00:00:00] Taking a customer centric approach means basing UI design decisions on the desires and needs of the customer. While the importance of customer first thinking may seem obvious to product owners and designers, business stakeholders almost always have a different opinion about what's important and they tend to push requirements that suit their needs over the customers'.  

[00:00:20] In this episode I make a case for why it's imperative UI design teams prioritize customer needs over the business, why business stakeholders should have a limited role in your design process. And I'll share two stories from in the trenches with clients where customer-first thinking failed and the impact it had on the business.

[00:00:39] Hello everyone. I'm Joshua Enders owner of digital agency Six Vertical and you're listening to the For Digital Leaders podcast.

[00:00:52] And today we're going to talk about customer centric design specifically its relevance in designing digital interactions and online experiences that drive online sales. I've been thinking a lot about customer centric design being customer first lately because over the last month or so we've been onboarding a new client and they're going through the initial process is where we we get to know their business. We dissect their business processes. We audit data. We look at analytics, we audit existing online properties like their brand website and e-commerce storefronts. And in doing so, we interact a lot with the business and, just by virtue of that, we're learning the business agenda, and we're learning how they've constructed their processes. All the things that have gotten them to where they're at today.

[00:01:53] But we also work to understand the customer, and we ask a lot of questions about the customers. We create customer personas. We ask to look at customer data. We typically ask for access to their CRM system. We ask to review any legacy documentation about customers if it's available.

[00:02:17] And the goal here is to get to know the customer. For us, it's a new client, a new industry, a new sector, a new company and we work diligently to understand the customer. That allows us to recommend better ideas.  

[00:02:33] So when you're neck deep in meetings with both the business and talking about business related items and you're also talking to groups that are there to represent the voice of the customer, it doesn't take very long to gauge just how much an organization leverages their understanding of the customer to drive decisions. And how much decisions are influenced by the needs of the business.

[00:03:00] Knowing how strongly an organization can connect with their in-market customers, and organize those customers into segments, and be able to explain what drives the purchasing decision decisions for each segment. I'm hyper focused on that, and why it's important is because when I don't see that a group is particularly strong in this area, it informs how I need to approach the concept and the topics of customer-centric design and customer-centric thinking.

[00:03:31] If it's not inherent in their abilities to talk about the customer and have a deep understanding of the customer, and being able to use that information to drive interface designs and business processes, then I know I need to spend a little bit extra time explaining the value walking through what customer centricity is and the benefits of it.

[00:04:01] A typical starting point for software development projects is business requirements and it usually involves either a consultant or an internal resource having meetings with the different departments within a company. It could be sales, marketing, accounting, or operations. Even the executives could make up their own constituency their own group. And when you're interviewing these groups, all of them are going to have their own agendas. Those agendas are going to be driven by many things. This could be a compensation model if you're in sales. It could be annual targets or quotas.

[00:04:43] But rarely do the business agendas align well with customer needs, wants and expectations. In the world of e-commerce, designing the digital interfaces and experiences are primary touch points with our customers. And it's just not natural for these internal departments to have good ideas about what makes a good digital experience.

[00:05:16] Much of their thinking comes from what serves them. And it's easy to lose sight of the needs and the things that drive customer behavior. And it becomes even more challenging as the organization gets bigger, because as an organization gets bigger, it relies more and more on processes. And as those processes start to expand and become more rigorous and there's more rules that are created, it moves us further and further away from the core of what the customer wants.

[00:05:49] When companies require that the customer fits in with their organizational processes, that is being business-centric. The needs of how the business operates is what drives prioritization. And there could be many examples of when this is a good thing a good idea or when it makes sense. And one example that always comes to mind for me is engaging with government services.

[00:06:19] Let's go out and use the DMV as an example. We chose this example because I assume most of us have been to the DMV. I recently went to the DMV and had to renew my license. And here's how it went. So I arrive and the first thing you do when you walk in is there is that that unit that's staring you in the face where you have to draw number. It's the first thing they want you to do is take a number. And it's very difficult to not see that because they place it very prominently.

[00:06:52] Next, on the floor there are arrows pointing you where to go and they're going to direct the traffic to the information booth. There is, for the most part, there's someone there. Oftentimes someone is not there as well. And it's at this information booth where you talk to the individual and they ask what are you here for. And their primary job is to make sure that you have the right paperwork with you. And we've all been there before where we don't have the right paperwork so they send you home and you to come back at a later date with the right paperwork. If you're lucky enough to have brought the right paperwork then you wait for your number to be called and you go to the boot. Tthere you begin the process of whatever it is that you're doing if you're renewing a license, or you're taking a driver's test. Whatever it might be. They redirect you somewhere else to wait in another queue and then to take your test.

[00:07:51] The point here is that the DMV has their needs right and the entire experience the customer experience has driven around providing them what it is that they need. It's not about customer convenience is it's not about delivering a great experience it's not about efficiency. Definitely not about that. We all dread going to the DMV. Why. Because it takes in which darn time. But that is a great example of designing an experience around the needs of the business and designing the business processes are driving the customer interactions that doesn't work in the online world especially for channels to drive sales whether it be consumer or B2B. We have to give more weight more importance more influence to the customers needs. Or else we will face competition that will go somewhere where it's easier to buy. They will become frustrated and leave your property. Whatever the outcome may be but we want to design experiences that are customer centric and it brings up the question what does it mean to be customer centric. Right. And so being customer centric many definitions but what comes to mind for me is that businesses design their processes and their experiences around the fit the needs and the wants of the customer not the other way around as not designing the experience around the needs of the business and legacy processes. It's deeply understanding the customer their motives and designing and oftentimes redesigning your experiences to fit around those needs.

[00:09:35] Now obviously that's going to differ across industries across sectors across companies across geographies. There a lot of nuances. But there's a small handful of constants that we need to think of. It's kind of comical when we talk to groups that are business-centric, they seemingly forgot what customers value. I'm always baffled by that because ironically we're all customers. We're all customers at some point in our life. We all consume things. We all buy things. We are consumers. And so all you have to do is look at your own experiences and your own desires to understand these very few principles that consumers seek.

[00:10:34] So what are these magical principles?

[00:10:39] Well the first one is simplicity. We value simplicity. We need things to be easy to understand. We need things to be easy to follow. Don't make me do brain surgery just to figure out how to register to access your e-commerce store. Don't make me have to acquire a Ph.D. to figure out how your online quoting tool works. Keep it simple.

[00:11:07] Next is efficiency, and you can add convenience to that. We value efficiency convenience and time savings. The entire on-demand industry all the ride sharing companies Uber, Lyft and the others is a convenience play. it's a convenience sell. You're saving me time. We value efficiency. We want things to be efficient.

[00:11:28] I just installed Alexa into my home and I started by connecting my lights to it. So now I can walk into a room and say hey Alexa turn on the lights. But at times when the internet goes down, Alexa is not working. So I actually have to go and turn on the lights with my hands. Ever since I've installed Alexa, I now find turning on the lights with my hands an inconvenience. So our behavior changes quickly and we value efficiency time savings.

[00:12:03] Next is self-service. With digital communication we don't want to talk to humans anymore. Especially if we're evaluating a product or service. If we're an in market prospect or in-market customer, we want to collect data and information and evaluate that product and see if it fits our needs. We want to do that on our own especially for lower cost products. We should be able to do 100 percent of the evaluation and determine if that product meets our needs and make that purchase with zero human interaction.

[00:12:39] As you move up market more expensive products and higher touch products it will require that a human gets involved at some point to close the deal. But for everyday consumer products I should be able to make that purchasing decision without having to consult with a sales person a support rep. I want to be able to do it on my own. I want self-service. I value independence and I do not want to talk to a human being.

[00:13:05] And the next principle is what I say is frictionless. We enjoy frictionless experiences especially digital experiences. We just have come to expect that they work. Web software has advanced greatly in the last 5, 7, 10 years and the experiences that companies can now provide especially in consumer facing software... it just works. We're no longer tolerant of slow load times, slow page load times, poor page layouts on a mobile device like we just expect these things to work. Now we expect the experience to be frictionless. And when you insert friction into an experience it has a negative outcome.

[00:13:57] It reminds me of a time where we are working with a client... a great client. We were there to help them launch their global e-commerce marketplace. This client was a well recognized global brand they've been in business for over a hundred years. They're doing hundreds of millions of dollars in business and we are helping them launch their first e-commerce storefront and they were selling spare parts to customers across the globe. Are warehousing these products in the U.S., Germany, and China. This was a big operation.

[00:14:37] The vision was to drive 25 percent of total revenue through the online channel within five years. Aspirational for sure but we are there to help them get this off the ground and it was a great project we did great work. But there is one thing that I will never forget and that had to do with how we design the online registration process. This is how people are going to access your storefront. It was a B2B selling model and typically large parts, if not all, of the product catalog is behind in an account. Well what that means is you have to register for an account in order to see the product catalog.

[00:15:22] Acquiring customers is hard right. It can be expensive. So whenever you are able to get a customer to the point where they want to register. These are B2B customers, and when they want to register with you they want to give you their information, they want to establish an account and they actually want to look at your product catalog and start moving through your purchasing funnel. If you can get customers to that point there is no reason to introduce any sort of friction into that registration process. That registration process should be as frictionless as easy as simple as possible to execute. You want them to register because once they do they're in the top of your funnel and you have a commercial relationship with them and you could market to them through various channels.

[00:16:10] So you want to make it as easy as possible. But I just remember that despite the company sophistication, and the intelligent people within this group that we are working at this big global brand there is this one requirement where it came from an administrative group that was in a distant office that said when a customer registers we need the DUNS number. A DUNS number it stands for data universal numbering system and it was developed by Dun and Bradstreet and it's a unique numeric identifier that's assigned to a company to a business entity and it has something to do with credit reporting I believe. But maybe its use in other products now as well. But the likelihood that an individual would know the DUNS number of their organization it's near zero.

[00:17:13] No one's going to know what that is unless you work in accounting or you're in an administrative role where you have access to that information and you're using it often. But the everyday sales person and especially the customer archetype that would buy spare products from this particular marketplace that we building they're not going to have any idea what the company DUNS number is. They might not even know what a DUNS number is in general. So to add that as a field as required field in the registration process we were just totally baffled by this. So of course we inquired and ask some questions. Why is it there? Do you understand the potential ramifications. So on and so on. We tried diligently to get this requirement removed because it just was obvious it was common sense to us as the e-commerce service provider that it was not a good idea. It was inserting unnecessary friction into the registration process and it was going to hurt registration conversions.

[00:18:13] We could not get them to remove remove this requirement. And I think even to this day when you go and look at the registration page the DUNS number is still required. But this is a great example of a business agenda usually driven by a group that doesn't naturally understand how to design software interfaces for them to insert a hard requirement and give it to a software development team with zero awareness or appreciation or consideration to how it could negatively impact the customer experience is a great example of that.

[00:18:52] And these are the things that we want to avoid to give an even more recent example with the client we're our onboarding. Now one of the first things we did is we set up Google Analytics to try to understand what was happening on the Web site to track certain behaviors certain conversion points goals and we spent a couple of weeks going through the site and figuring out what those key conversions were and one that we typically track is order conversions.

[00:19:22] So the analytics on the checkout screens and determine looking for any sort of significant leakage in that flow. And this particular customer had recently modified and updated their checkout flow to collect information that helped the operational teams that would actually deliver the service.

[00:19:48] This client is in the moving industry. And to tell you a little bit about the moving industry the the cost of services can vary greatly based on the nuances of the move and there's a number of things that can go into a move and there's different types of moves as well. You've got commercial moves, interstate moves, intrastate moves. You have household moves, you have small moves, local moves, long distance moves. And there can be quite a bit of variation between the different move types and it's also common practice in this industry to provide a final quote for anything other than household moves.

[00:20:48] But regardless of the type of move in order to provide that final estimate that final quote to the customer they have to answer a number of questions you have to collect enough information in order to establish that quote.

[00:21:02] And so this client had updated the checkout flow, had expanded the checkout flow to ask a lot of questions that was intended and with good intentions to uncover the details and the nuances for the the moving crews that were delivering the service to understand what they would encounter when they showed up.

[00:21:25] There's always that story that dark tale of the moving crew showing up to a home and it's the hoarder where there's just stuff everywhere. They're underprepared. They had initially scheduled four hours for the move. It's going to take four days for the move. There's always this bad story floating around. So the updates that were made to the checkout flow were intended to collect enough information to inform make the moving crew better aware of what they were going to encounter when they arrived.

[00:22:17] We were suspicious about the checkout updates that were made, and we had a hypothesis that expanding the number questions being asked was negatively hurting the conversion rates. The client didn't buy it at first because they were really enjoying the new data they were collecting, and they saw a benefit in collecting all this additional information at the point of purchase. So we set up the analytics and it only took a couple of weeks of collecting the data before we are able to show them significant leakage.

[00:22:49] We're talking greater than 97 percent drop off rate after a visitor entered the checkout flow. Before the web analytics was installed, this client had no idea that level of drop off was happening. It really surprised them.

[00:23:17] And the analytics gave us the information we needed to recommend some changes, and prioritize removing friction from the checkout flow and we're in the process of doing that right now. So we're very hopeful that that will have a positive impact.

[00:23:32] OK so there's a couple of stories from the trenches and just a recap.

[00:23:39] Simplicity. Efficiency. Convenience. Self-service. Independence. And removing friction... these are all common needs, wants, motives, and desires of consumers across industries. These are the things you want to keep in mind. This is part of what it means to be customer-centric to keep these principles at the front of your mind as you're making design decisions.

[00:24:07] So one approach that I recommend taking to ensure that the voice of the customer is represented in your design sessions is to explicitly assign to an individual that is they are to be the voice of the customer in the meetings. It's a form of role playing, and you're delegating an individual that they are there to know at times be antagonistic to represent a contrarian view to really challenge the others in the meetings especially from the business side. Challenge their ideas, challenge or recommendations, ask why they do things the way that they do. And yet to really add that element it can't just all be business from the people in these requirements sessions or that's all that's going to be represented. So those agendas that will be represented we need to insert even if it's artificial. We need to insert the voice of the customer or the perspective of vantage point of the customer in our design meetings to ensure that we are keeping in mind and taking into consideration those principles that I just mentioned.

[00:25:22] So give that a shot. I oftentimes like to play that role in the meeting because I am naturally antagonistic I guess is that something I I want to admit. And I also. Yeah. As The Consultant or representing the agency we're we're not part of the business literally. And that's why we're there is to provide a different perspective something that's different than what's done today that challenges the status quo. And it's something that we it makes up a big part of the foundation with how we engage with our clients and that's getting them to prioritize the customer and early in the game. We know there's a there's a session there is at least part of a session where we talk about our belief our firm conviction that successful organizations especially e-commerce companies companies that drive revenue through digital channels are going to be those that make the hard choices in a strategic choice that that to drive decisions that impact how they sell from a deep understanding of their customers. And if they don't have that deep understanding it's very easy to see. And then we have ways to go about starting to build that understanding we have a huge x research methodology that we can lean on we customer interviews we provide web analytics services where we can track data from website interactions about customer behavior and all these different data points very quickly start to build up a repository of information that allow you to allow teams to think and appreciate the customer perspective. And it's really fascinating to see to see a group go from being heavy business centric thinking decision making to customer centric thinking. It's fascinating to see that that transformation happen and it doesn't take very long once you start collecting that data. And once you start having people represent the voice of the customer in the requirements session again even if it's artificial just assign someone to play that role. Right. Tell them we want them to be antagonistic be antagonistic take the contrarian view. And yet in short order you'll start to see changes with how the decisions that are made around Designing Interfaces.