Lets’s be User centric! Are we User Centric yet?!

All companies are going through transitions. Whether it’s shift towards a digital products as almost all publishers and media firms had to do a decade ago, or scaling up towards sustainable growth. A huge proportion of firms are at some stage of shifting from a tech lead product approach to one that is far more user centric.



There’s a great reason to do this: user centricity has two things at its core – real value to its users and massively reducing risk for the business. But it’s not a shift that comes easily or naturally to most – or at least it’s easy to pay lip service to, but far harder to actually implement.


From what to what?

The reasons the transformation is so difficult are many fold – It’s organisational remodelling, a shift in mindset, a cultural and behavioural change.


It’s organisational remodelling, a shift in mindset, a cultural and behavioural change.


One reason it’s so difficult is that it’s such a major shift from a traditional tech led approach. Very basically, often early success for a company relies on one person having a great idea – a eureka moment – usually capitalising upon either a new technology – or a new service – which meets existing demands of users and represents value to them. This success does not lie in wait for all new businesses though – and even for the ones that do achieve early success – what then? how to repeat that trick or build upon it?



Tech vs Product
If a company’s success is predicated on a few good ideas paying dividends in the market, its very difficult to shift the decision making process away from a process many will find familiar: somebody has good idea – which gains Exec level sponsorship and proceeds to development. But how can this guarantee to meet user demand?



This process can always get some research put into it to justify a user-centric moniker – but all that will do is tell you whether there is nominal value in an idea without any context. What’s missing? Are you solving a real problem? Are you solving the right problem? Are you solving the problem right?



Indeed, one of the biggest shifts required is the shift in power from development towards design – or from technology decisions to user researched ones. There are plenty of steps in the process where Execs, CTOs, developers and product mangers can influence product decisions far more than would be ideal to be truly user centric, even if they sound user centric. Perhaps during selection of backlog items or more institutional and process orientated: for example starting a backlog of stories with the words “As a user, I…” – nope, you are not the user!



Behavioural change
Behavioural change is not something humans are renowned for, even on an individual level. We’re very habitual beings and to break those habits at an organisational level needs several things to happen in parallel, as part of a programme of change.



Here are a few key milestones, activities and initiatives I have found to be positive moves to help this shift in placing the end user firmly in the middle of a firm’s approach to product design:



Buy in
This is of course a biggie – you definitely need the backing of the Execs, ideally you want them to be asking how to achieve it – but it’s also critical to get the folks on the front line to understand the reasoning behind this. To this end I’ve used…



Cross functional team workshops

Hopefully conducted team by team ( Squads, Units whatever you call them! ) – During these sessions I like to cover the following:



Why do this? – Discuss the rationale; the mantra we know by now right? : “Maximise value to the user, minimise risk to biz.”



It’s all about Empathy
It’s key for everyone involved to understand the end users of your products and empathy is not a natural gift for all people. A little information on cognitive biases goes down well here. It highlights the difficulty of seeing through different lenses – and therefore the pitfalls of assuming you know your user.


Example of confirmation bias



Try small tasks, like empathy mapping, to highlight how these biases can be consciously fought against.
highlight why it’s necessary to get to know the reasons why users use your products now – What tasks are they trying to do? Why? What do they do now? I also like to ask people to interview each other to experience the research process even if for 5 minutes.



Design thinking & Double diamonds
Design thinking is a loaded buzzword, and therefore often stripped of meaning – but if you can boil down what that really means – that employing a process which borrows from the designers toolkit – to focus on the problem rather than one that leaps to the solution it often resonates.


I walk through the Double Diamond idea, baring in mind the first questions are often about how that fits in with Agile methodology and Scrum frameworks – so having that diagram in you back pocket is a great help also. Know this: the process can be made to look clean and one directional in a diagram, but it’s much more messy than that! Often new research will lead you backwards in the process after new insights are revealed.



There are so many user research tools (too many to mention here – but this is good) which can all help at various points in the process – aligning over personas, agreeing how to benchmark and measure – set OKRs and KPIs all form part of the plan.



Comms, comms, comms.
Communication across divisions, departments, development teams – no company does it perfectly (few even do it well in my experience!) – but when investing in this user first approach it’s worth putting energy into setting up jointly accessible systems and channels where new research, planned research and new insights are disseminated across the company in presentations and workshops but also in an ongoing archive which all can use.



Get out of the building, get users in the building
A programme that invests time in organising frequent interaction with real users both in their own contexts and also invited into the office with teams can be hard to get off the ground but will also pay dividends – especially if developers, QAs, PMs etc. are invited to either watch usability testing live or recorded or get ‘User-sponsors’ to be part of working groups themselves. Investing in a permanent UX lab space also well worth the while and can be done on a small scale – effective even without two-way mirrors!



There is hope
This can all be achieved incrementally – a key point is that there is no expectation for everyone to become a user researcher overnight or at all – just that all understand the importance of research based decisions – be part of the team discussing the outcome of this research – that’s what makes multi-discipline teams so effective. To become accustomed to asking the right questions and the process which reveals them.


That this shift towards a design thinking approach is a trend, can be seen in the ratios of Developers to Designers at various companies. IBM has gone from a ratio of 1:72 in 2012 to 1:8 in 2017.

IBM transition in Dev to Design ratios


  • Designers

  • Developers


  • Designers

  • Developers

For reference: Intercom


  • Designers

  • Developers

Cultural shift will not happen overnight, it requires people to be open to new methods and also asks for something else – that people are comfortable sharing incomplete work and can give and receive critique in a constructive fashion – and any designer will tell you that takes a bit of time in itself. The rewards however are shared between the biz and most importantly the end users.