I’ve expressed concern lately over the lack of responsibility and accountability given to UX roles; the focus on design execution and not on strategy. User experience professionals can play many roles in organizations. It’s about time we begin to explore and expand the concept of User Experience beyond execution, beyond output, and yes, even beyond design.
UX as Customer Science
Every business starts as a science experiment. An experiment to answer to a fundamental question, a question that Lean Startup pioneer Eric Reis has phrased as “Should this product be built?” What he means is, we shouldn’t care if it’s possible to build something (Development), or exactly what/how to build it (Product, UX, IxD), until we can validate that enough users will even want what we’re providing. And not just any users, we want valid customers. Why? Because while businesses need many things, no business has ever succeeded without connecting to its customers.
Over the last 10 years, the Lean Startup concept has been incredibly eye-opening for brand new organizations. Indeed, it’s hard to find anyone with startup experience who doesn’t believe that validating customers early on is incredibly crucial as a company gets started.
But is the Lean Startup method just for startups? What about large, established businesses? I’ve heard it before: “Christopher, I work at a very large company. $150m in revenue last year, hockey stick growth. We’ve got a great product and UX department. We grow organically, and we know our customers. It’s about execution for us.” Right?
Way, way wrong. As companies grow, we focus more and more on refining, building and shipping. Repeat. We become inured to our assumptions about customers, and have far too much faith in the accretion of ‘facts’ that have seeped into our company culture over time. We may think we see enough through customer service tickets, usability testing and focus groups to get the customer feedback we need. Sometimes it’s hubris, but usually it’s simply that we never thought to consider that who our customers are and the value of what we’re offering can change.
This kind of challenge is hard, because it means working through ambiguity and potentially being a firebrand to conventional wisdom. Back in 2010, I consulted for a social media company, with a large team in place to focus on new design, new product features, new initiatives: all driven by legacy assumptions about customers from a different generation. Our ideas about who we were as a company and what would drive value were so ingrained that often we never thought to test these ideas in small batches first. It was all about the ‘big release’, and we launched to very mixed reviews. While a successful company may stop listening to customers for many reasons, no reason is valid.
Always Testing, Always Learning
Even when we are successful, we need a way to guarantee that we never reliquish our lean customer process, even when (especially when) company process has becomes rather, er, chunky. What is required is an independent group that isn’t building, executing or designing. Who isn’t part of an agile process, but rather an experimental one. Large product companies have this already. At Procter and Gamble, this is the Living Lab. Walmart’s got a similar lab too. For Renault/Nissan, it’s called ‘design context’ at DESIGN INDUSTRIEL.
Large product corporations have used customer-focused labs like this for years. This is different than market research or data analytics. These labs encourage discovery of new customer problems, behaviors and desires, help stolid systems make quantum leaps in conception, and as a gatekeeper, validate assumptions well before risking millions of dollars in capital on mainstream releases. And now that online/technology companies face similar risks, it begs the question, why are customer development labs not a welcome mainstay of every corporation? And, further, who better to lead such labs than online media professionals skilled in user behavior, user research, empathy and persona development. In short, we should have customer development labs, and they should be led by UX professionals.
A Customer Development Lab Should Be Run By UX
At SUBTXT, we are often hired to do this kind of product experimentation, either for new products or rethinking existing ones. In our experience, we believe a customer development lab, or any MVP process, should ascribe to the following pronciples:
- Be independent of the day to day, but in sync with the vision
- Stay protected from stakeholders, but not isolated from the system
- Challenge corporate assumptions, but make sure to introduce new ones
- Focus on innovation, not incremental change
- Process a company’s ideas, but also break away from routine
Science: One Of Many New Roles For UX
UXers are exceptionally suited to run a customer development lab like the one I am describing. We are very comfortable with lateral thinking, understanding customer behavior and conducting research. Not to say that others are not, but it’s a general trait of the group.
User experience professionals will have much broader roles in years to come. Indeed, the role of Customer Development Lab Director suggests value for the UX skillset outside of product design and execution.
In closing, I ask that you please help ground these thoughts with your own experiences. I’d love to hear from everyone about their experience developing concepts in lab situations like this, using lean methodologies, and building MVPs from a user experience perspective. What’s your opinion of UX’s role in corporate development?
As well, I am sure labs like this are starting to emerge out there. I’m sure everyone would love to hear about existing models for this type of experience.
P.S.: SUBTXT is starting its own customer development lab in July 2013, looking for new products and companies that want to incubate their ideas. If your company has been looking for a way to rapidly test new conceptual MVPs outside the normal process, send us an email and let us know.