Getting to experience thinking
“We’ve got a great idea we think you’re going to love.” Despite its manifest flaws, this is the approach that has long dominated the development of new products and services.
While introducing products that people love is an exemplary goal, real omniscience has proven to be distressingly rare. Users might eventually learn to love a product, but all too often they end up disliking or simply ignoring it. The track record of some of the biggest, most successful companies in the world are littered with disappointments. Think Google Glass, Windows Vista, and Apple Newton.
Over the last two decades there has been a wide-ranging effort to understand the cause of these failures and a corresponding evolution in the way enterprises think about developing new products and services.
This evolution can be described as a progression from capabilities thinking to product thinking to experience thinking. It has been accompanied by a corresponding change from inward-looking design processes that are constrained by organisational structures to a more fluid, outward-looking process shaped by customer needs.
Moving closer to the end user
In capabilities thinking, the emphasis is on engineering basic functionality. To take an example from treasury management, financial institutions might put together the pieces enabling end users to make an automated clearing house (ACH) payment online. The system might not exactly track the customers’ needs, but, the argument goes, it represents an improvement over what they had before.
Product thinking takes a step closer to the customer. Financial institutions begin with a product they think would be useful – for instance, a website that payments professionals could use to make an ACH payment – and concentrate on the features that, in their view, would best realise this vision. Technology and design are enlisted to serve this product perspective.
In experience thinking, the end user rather than the product is the starting point. Experience thinking entails an open-ended but structured inquiry to determine how end users approach the tasks they need to complete and to understand the challenges they face in accomplishing them. In other words, experience thinking begins with an investigation into end user needs, not with a priori assumptions.
In practice, the vision of the product that emerges from this study often defies initial expectations. For instance, the discovery process might reveal that what payments professionals desire above all is a tool that would enable them to choose the optimum channel for a particular payment, whether it be wire, card, ACH, or even cheque.
This is a more comprehensive and ambitious goal than a website for easier ACH payments, but it brings substantial rewards, by producing a tool that end users really love because it so completely meets their needs.
Organisations that start work with end users from the start gain higher levels of efficiency, accuracy, and employee satisfaction while financial institutions that introduce these tools benefit from higher levels of loyalty and better pricing for delivering these benefits.
Mapping out the ecosystem
In concept, experience thinking is not difficult to understand. Deploying it is another matter entirely. The shift to experience thinking requires enterprises not only to adopt skills and processes that diverge in significant ways from previous practice, but also to fundamentally rethink the structure and even the business model that governs their organisation.
Take, for instance, the process of discovery. There are many models for discovery that experience thinkers can adopt, but they all represent a departure from traditional focus groups where users, in isolation, are asked to respond to a product or envision an ideal solution.
Experience thinkers take an in situ approach to the discovery process. Their goal is to describe the end user ecosystem and map out the multitude of complex, multidimensional interactions that define it. Their tools are those of science – observation, analysis, and modeling – but they also combine them with perspectives from psychology and sociology.
In human systems, a person’s perception of a task – the joy they feel in accomplishing it and the frustrations they may encounter along the way – are part of the feedback loop shaping their ecosystem. In our payments example, the friction generated by having to login to separate systems for different kinds of payments will diminish the likelihood of payment professionals using the optimal system for each payment.
The implications of this insight are far-reaching. The best experiential design is one that is emotionally satisfying as well as functionally powerful; it delights as well as serves.
Taking inspiration from the end user’s experience
The impact of experiential thinking on traditional implementation processes are equally dramatic. In experiential thinking, the endpoint of discovery is not a product but knowledge to generate hypotheses about a product.
These hypotheses are quickly converted into a series of stripped-down prototypes, essentially product sketches that are meant to communicate product ideas. These prototypes are tested with end users, and with each iteration, the product comes into clearer focus.
In addition, the multidimensional nature of discovery – which embraces emotional as well as functional considerations – changes the composition of the implementation team.
Experience thinking requires a multidisciplinary team consisting of product specialists, interface and interactive designers, and engineers, each of whom can contribute their own skills and intelligence to the process.
Aligning the organisation with the end user
This realignment in development teams signals a fundamental shift in corporate culture. In many enterprises, design is seen as an adjunct to product management and engineering. Now it is a co-equal.
More far-reaching are the implications of experience thinking for organisational structure. In our payments example, end users expressed a preference for a single tool that will enable them to make payments through a variety of different channels.
In many financial institutions, however, treasury management and card may be owned by two different business units. Creating delightful experiences may require institutions to reconfigure their structure to accommodate the expectations of their customers.
Despite the challenges it poses for large organisations, experience thinking is not the sole purview of small start-ups.
We have embarked on this journey at Capital One, as have other leading companies like General Electric, IBM, Pepsi and Microsoft.
For us, the benefits of providing products and services that emerge from end user preferences and expectations is the key to a sustainable future – as is building an organisation that is nimble and responsive enough to adjust to these expectations as they evolve over time.
By Richard Dalton, VP and head of design, Capital One Commercial Bank
This article is also featured in the July/August 2017 issue of the Banking Technology magazine. Click here to read the digital edition – it is free!