strategic ux

Business savvy designers start with the customer

An excellent thing about writing a book is having the excuse to read. Until recently, I’ve read a lot of people writing about Peter Drucker (a pioneering management theorist), now I’m actually reading his work myself. I recommend you do too.

His book Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices is going down as one of the best User Experience books I’ve read in a long time. He wrote it in 1974.

One of the issues that it is really clarifying for me is something I’ve had a gut feel about for a long time. The role of the commercially or business savvy designer.

What does it mean to be ‘business savvy’ when you’re a designer? For some, it means you have an MBA, you take pleasure in doing SWOT analysis, and you love to spend your afternoon doing some double entry book keeping. For most of us, I think it means that we’re willing to ask for or define and then design for measurable outcomes that the business cares about. Increases in sales, page impressions, things that accountants and managers care about.

While I’m all for helping my client/employer be profitable so that they can continue to pay me and so we can work on more and better projects together, the description above doesn’t really fit well with most of the other aspects of User Experience. All too often, we find ourselves making compromises, or doing things that don’t really make sense, because of these clearly defined business objectives or ‘commercial reality’.

Reading Drucker has helped me to better articulate why this feels so wrong. It’s because it is wrong.

Most of the business people we’re taking orders from are actually doing business wrong. And if anyone can help them, it’s a User Experience person who has a firm grip on how business should be.

Actually, if you read Drucker (and I’ll post you some snippets in a moment), I think you’ll be amazed at how – if business is done the way he advocates – business people and UX people are actually coming from precisely the same place. Working together, doing things the right way, we can actually be firm allies rather than – as is so often the case – being mildly suspicious of each others motives and usefulness to the organisation.

There is so much of the first part of my copy of Drucker’s book highlighted I can hardly choose which bit to share with you. Here are a few pieces I had to underline then make a big highlighter star in the margin about:

To know what a business is we have to start with its purpose. Its purpose must lie outside of the business itself. In fact, it must lie in society, since business enterprise is an organ of society. There is only one valid definition of business purpose: to create a customer.

It is the customer who determines what a business is. it is the customer alone whose willingness to pay for a good or for a service converts economic resources into wealth, things into goods. Whatever the business thinks it produces is not of first importance – especially not to the future of the business and to its success…

What the customer thinks he or she is buying, what he or she considers value is decisive – it determines what a business is, what it produces, and whether it will prosper. And what the customer buys and considers value is never a product. It is always a utility – that is, what a product or service does for him or her. And what is value for the customer is anything but obvious. (pp 56-57)

We really need a value measurement. What economic value does innovation give the customer? The customer is the only judge; he or she alone knows the economic reality. (pp60)

Profit is not a cause but a result – the results of the performance of the business in marketing, innovation, productivity. It is a needed result, serving essential economic functions.Profit is, first, the test of performance – the only effective test… Indeed, profit is a beautiful example of what engineers mean when they talk of feedback, or the self-regulation of a process by it’s own results. (pp65)

With respect to the definition of business purpose and business mission, there is only one such focus, one starting point. It is the customer. The customer defines the business.

Management always, and understandably, considers its product or its service to be important. If it did not, it could not do a good job. Yet to the customer, no product or service, and certainly no company, is of much importance. The executives of a company always tend to believe that the customer spends hours discussing their products. But how many housewives, for instance, ever talk to each other about the whiteness of their laundry? If something is badly wrong with one brand of detergent, they switch to another. Customers only want to know what the product or service will do for them tomorrow. All they are interested in are their own values and wants. Any serious attempt to state ‘what our business is’ must start with these truths about the customers. (pp 72)

The customer never buys a product. By definition the customer buys the satisfaction of a want. The customer buys value. Yet, the manufacturer, by definition, cannot produce a value, but can only make and sell a product. What the manufacturer considers quality may, therefore, be irrelevant and nothing but a waste and useless expense. (p 76)

Maybe I’m unlucky but all too many projects that I come into contact with seem to start with the sales figures. They have noisy shareholders demanding dollar value results in the next three months. They focus on traffic, page impressions, ad revenue, numbers of customers. Yet ask them what the purpose of the business is, what the value to the customer is, and often the response you get is a sigh and a look that makes you feel like you’ve drifted off into touchy-feely-designerland.

Well, no more. Forget ‘design thinking’ and any new-fashioned mumbo-jumbo. And forget being an order taker for sales figures and page impressions. By not focusing properly on customer value, defining their business in relation to customer value, our business people are doing business wrong. Putting the cart before the horse, focusing on the feedback and not the system. And it’s not me that says it, it’s the guys who defined what management is.

(And, for the record, Drucker kept saying pretty much the same thing for the next 20yrs until he died, in 1995 – you reckon you’re frustrated, try being him. He ended up giving up on business and working with non-profits instead).

Yes, its going to be a tough job turning some businesses around. Yes, sometimes you’ll need to give up and go somewhere where people actually want to listen. Working out this customer thing is much harder than setting some sales figures and then pressuring everyone around you to try to meet them… somehow.

But that’s our job, right. The customer thing. Let’s stop feeling bad that we don’t understand all those complicated tables in Excel and how to read a profit and loss table. Let’s focus on what we know – gaining customer insight and designing products and services that deliver value to customers – because more than anything, that’s what business needs.

Do this confidently, and that’s the best way you can ever be a business savvy designer.

It’s a tough mission. Let’s do it together.

I’ve added this book as an idea for London UX Bookclub – vote it up if you’re local and you’d like to talk about this more.

3 thoughts on “Business savvy designers start with the customer

  1. Hi Leisa. Great article. I have been working on an MBA + Design study plan. Having a better understanding of business has been very helpful in advancing my skills as a designer. Like you said, some of the authors, like Drucker, have great insight that can be applied to experience design. Have you read re-imagine by Tom Peters yet?

    Thanks for sharing your insights. I have recommended your blog as one of the best to follow. Keep the articles coming.


  2. I found a quote from that book on the web:

    “Because its purpose is to create a customer, the business has two – and only two – functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation create value, all the rest are costs.”

    and used it in in a product development proposal, I think it might time to read the book itself.

  3. Absolutely agree with you, Leisa! A desire and commitment to make the client company better (improving the way they work, connect with customers/clients, etc.) has always been a key component of my professional practice. It’s lovely to be pointed to a clear summary of what has to date been largely a natural process, and be reassured that it is in fact probably an approach to the field that has the greatest beneficial impact for all parties.

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