Becoming Experience-Led


Experience-led companies out-perform their competitors by 228% financially. Great design, which results in experiences users love, increases margins and your competitive advantage. The job of a User Experience leader is to build a UX practice that consistently produces differentiated experiences and that delivers truly inspiring designs that monetize at a much higher rate than the competition. But, many UX teams deliver dreary, complex experiences, even when they have budgets in the tens of millions of dollars. But why?

Many companies want to become the Apple or Amazon of their industry. However, they need to recognize that design requires commitment from all levels and units of the organization. In order for the company to be the best it can be at what it does, design processes and focus need to be in place.

This article highlights the practices companies must engage in to be the best they can be at creating an experience that solves unmet customer needs and makes their product feel indispensable to their customers – like Apple and Amazon. Such a company must have support at all levels, and treat it like a real transformation.

Changing a company so that it can differentiate on the experience requires also changing the culture, and often process and engagement models. It is easy to underestimate what it takes. Discussed are some of the key elements required to transform a company into an experience-led organization, so it can outperform its competition by over 200%.

What is Great Design?
Great design solves real user challenges (even if unexpressed), engages users emotionally, and makes products and services easy to use. It results in experiences that inspire customers through their total journey and creates long-term value. Seldom are delightful experiences based just on a single UI though. They are based on a delightful engagement from beginning to end. A great example is Uber and Lyft or the Samsung Galaxy and the Apple iPhone. In each of these examples, the product is aesthetically pleasing to be sure; however it is also much more. In the case of Uber and Lyft, the experience is smooth, delightful, engaging, and useful. It makes users want to come back. People love it. Many people have started using these services when they had never taken a traditional taxi in the past.

The Uber and Lyft experience has become so compelling that is changing the economics of car ownership. How did Uber and Lyft reach this level of success? They defined an intended experience outcome, and then designed a total experience that is usable, useful, and which creates an emotional engagement. Of course, they have great visual and interaction design. But it’s the total experience and value that represents great design, not just the app, and producing a great total experience requires participation from all of the cross-functional stakeholders. Designing a great experience is not just the job of the designer.

How to Go from Designing Average to Excellent Experiences
Remember, if it were easy to differentiate on the experience, everyone would be doing it. Such differentiation requires what at first may seem like a radical shift, but it seems like this mainly because it requires shifting the way we think about user experience. In fact, every recommendation in this article is being implemented by more than one company transforming itself to become experience-led. This article breaks the process into five basic steps, each with a set of activities that are required to become experience-led, so you differentiate on the design and outperform your competition:

1 Get buy-in at all levels to drive a transformation.
2 Evolve the culture.
3 Implement a process that enables you to become experience-led.
4 Take lessons from the best design firms.
5 Institute the right organization and engagement model

1. Get Buy-In for the Transformation
Getting buy-in to transform your company to become experience-led requires getting the emotional support of executives, including the CEO and having the right UX leader and a great team.

Executives Must Be Emotionally Committed to the Transformation
All companies that have successfully transformed to become experience-led have a CEO who is emotionally invested in such a transformation. Apple is everyone’s favorite example of a design-led organization, and we’ve all heard much about the relationship between Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive. As world-class a designer and leader as Jonathan Ive is, before Steve Jobs returned in 1996, design didn’t matter much. As a result, the design team’s work was much less impressive. It’s not that Ive and his team are not in the top 1% of designers. They are. It’s because the team did not have the executive support they needed, and the company did not prioritize design. Companies need at least senior executive support for becoming experience-led.

Hire The Right Team
There are two steps to getting the right team on board. The first is hiring a UX leader who understands how to, and the second is to hire the most talented team possible that is driven by producing great design.

Your UX Leader Must Be a Great Leader in Their Own Right
UX practitioners in particular are motivated by purpose: The knowledge they are creating something that makes a difference to people. On the other hand, corporations are driven by profit. Great UX leaders tie purpose to profits with an inspiring vision. Such a vision captures the head and the heart of both employees and senior leadership. It helps attract and retain the most talented researchers and designers in the industry. Such great UX leaders also know how to inspire and engage these employees to produce truly stellar designs that impress company leadership, and fulfill a deeper purpose for the designers themselves. They build trust, and help their employees do the best work of their careers.

A great UX leader also understands what it takes to transform a company into a design-led organization. They know how to set up an organizational structure and inspire a culture that can attract the best talent, that lets designers do what they do best, and incorporates design thinking strategically into the organization. Such leaders also understand the language of business, and can communicate from this business framework. They also produce a vision that instills a deeper sense of purpose that connects to the values that designers hold: Designers want to make the world a better place and improve the human experience. A great leader knows how to tie corporate purpose to value and purpose that makes the best designers want to participate.

The best UX leaders know that success is a function of transformative experiences that differentiate the company. It is not about their headcount, or even their title. They focus on building the right culture, evolving processes, and drive design thinking strategically. They enable the whole organization to contribute to producing inspiring results, not just the UX team.

Hire Only the Most Skilled Resources
Every UX leader—indeed leaders in all disciplines—agree on the surface that they need to hire only top talent. The challenge is that most corporate UX leaders end up compromising that objective. Sure, they hire talented individuals. But, they cannot hire the best. Part of the issue is that the most talented UX professionals seek not only skilled UX leaders, but also a company culture and processes that enable them to produce experiences that inspire pride. Unfortunately, most organizational structures and company cultures are not set up to facilitate inspiring design. As a result, the most talented leave. Where do they go? They leave for a design agency, or an in-house UX teams that can produce agency-quality experiences.

How then do corporations attract the best talent? It starts with having support from senior leadership. It also requires hiring a UX leader who can take advantage of this support, attract the best creative directors, form the right organizational structure and processes, and establish a vision that inspires teams to want to be a part of something great. And then, it requires execution and great results.

As Daniel Pink highlights
in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, the best employees are rewarded less by external factors, such as salary levels. The fact is that leaders have to pay people enough to take money off the table as an issue, but it neither attracts nor retains the best employees. The best employees are motivated by the certainty they are creating something that makes a difference to the people who use it, that they are producing experiences that people connect with. And that’s the issue: A great leader crafts an exciting and authentic vision that gives people a deeper sense of purpose, that resonates with their internal values, and enables them to execute at their highest levels. They give their employees autonomy. And, as great leaders, they hire exceptional talent, so employees know that they will become better, or gain mastery.

The environment and support that enables leaders to acquire top talent and then to produce world-class designs creates a virtuous cycle that excites executives, design teams, adjacent disciplines. It results in truly differentiated experiences.

2. Evolve the Company Culture
The fact is that changing a culture is at the heart of any change. It’s foundational. Of the companies that have become experience-led, all have evolved their culture to support radical collaboration. Because behaviors are expressed based on internal goals and motivations, change must start from the inside. If you want others to change, you must give them a reason that resonates with their values and motivates them to change. Everything about becoming experience-led is about creating and sustaining value.

Values drive passion, and this passion must be expressed in the leader and company’s objectives. More than this, they must be values the rest of the organization can get behind. If you want people to take action on a transformation, leadership must communicate authentically its values, and how they will reinforce those values in culture. The fact is that changing culture is difficult, and most companies fail trying to do so. When leadership tries to change culture from the outside, it does not resonate with employees, and they ignore the request as just another ephemeral initiative. Any extrinsic motivation cannot override a person’s self-motivations and values. But, when a leader holds a set of values, communicates those values as immutable, and these values and vision resonate with deeply-held beliefs of employees, then and only then will employees begin behaving differently.

People are often self-motivated and hold cynicism toward any change. These intrinsic motivations that employees do not express represent the hurdle leadership must jump over. How do you get employees to optimize not for themselves, but for the larger team and organization? They have to believe and they have to care. It is the job of a leader to establish values, a vision, and practices that resonate and support the culture that they want.

What kind of culture is required to transform a company to become expeience-led? One that leverages integrative thinking and multidisciplinary collaboration at the deepest levels. One that embraces and requires both candor and deep, vulnerability-based trust. Only companies that get the best minds and hearts in the game get products that transform their markets. They transform markets because they create sustainable long-term value that nobody previously imagined. To achieve this though, employees must begin optimizing for the organization’s success, not their own, and the only way to do that is to connect with an employee’s sense of purpose. Culture starts with values, and is supported by these practices.

The right culture is one of radical collaboration, where teams work hard to define creative outcomes that inspire them and their customers. But reinforcing a culture also requires that executives (and employees at all levels) within a company:
• treat becoming experience-led like they would any transformation, that they recognize that it takes intensive effort every day
• communicate the urgency of embracing new practices
• establish and adhere to a compelling vision
• instill Integrative Thinking through the organization
• establish rewards for teamwork, collaboration, and joint decision making
• embrace candor and failure
• implement a transformation communication cycle
• show wins through an Experience Matters program
• establish education in design thinking (but not a codified process).

Just acquiring a design firm or hiring a great designer does not convert companies into experience-led enterprises. If the company culture does not change in a way that supports an optimal user and customer experience, any change to becoming experience-led lasts only a short time. Of course, processes and organizational structures must also change, but before people will follow a new process, they must recognize the value of such change, that they must be part of it, and then recognize the different practices and behaviors they must live.

3. Implement a Process that Helps You Become Experience-Led
For any company to transform itself at all, especially to become experience-led, it must align its practices to its culture and values so teams can embody them in its day-to-day approach to product or service development and evolution. If an organization has the necessary support and is working to implement the right culture, the following leading industry practices can help companies differentiate on the experience:
• Start by defining experience outcomes upfront, then features and technologies
• Fail Fast: Go Rapidly from Concept to Code
• Implement a Two-step Process: Plan then Execute
• Implement a Multidisciplinary Decision Making Framework
• Focus on the Total Customer Journey, Not Just a Single App
• Discover Emotional Drivers through Lean Ethnography

Defining Experience Outcomes First, Then Features and Technologies
Being experience-led means literally that you start with the experience. Companies that differentiate on the experience today do not start by defining feature sets. They first define a vision for the experience outcome they intend for their users and customers. Only then do they define features and technologies to support this vision.

This said, it is important to understand the process more deeply. Crafting an Experience Outcome does not mean that teams cannot improve the concept. Rather, they understand the ultimate experience they are shooting for. During iterations (sprints), the team might improve on the original experience outcome. But, they can never “dumb it down.” If a team defined an experience outcome as “enable users to tap their screen one time to listen to voice mail messages,” then they would never go back to the old method of dialing, entering a password, waiting 45 seconds, listening to messages in sequence, then interacting with each message. If they could improve on the vision of “visual voicemail,” they would identify those improvements during sprints.

Go Rapidly from Concept to Code
Teams must learn to fail fast, and this must become an accepted cultural norm. In the design field, that means going from concept to code rapidly and iterating on the early concept. Eric Ries suggests in The Lean Startup that companies succeeding in the Internet age are those that pivot the fastest to changing market demands. UX teams are no different. We have to research and build concepts fast, solicit feedback, and iterate, all within the Product Planning phase. The real objective is to fail as fast as we can, and then learn from our failures. Remember—failure is not bad. It’s good to stretch ourselves, to fail, and learn.

Engage a Process that Facilitates Great Design—Plan then Execute
In the Concept to Code model, companies know they are building the right solution, because they have verified it in their marketplace. As they evolve even farther, they move to an even more cutting-edge, but deeply practical model: The Double-Diamond Framework.

In experience-led companies, designers help visualize the end experience through prototypes with which the product team and users can interact. They then gather market-based feedback and user feedback (both performance-based and preference-based measures). Visionary companies and design leaders today do just that: They engage in a more detailed planning cycle before entering project execution—before the build cycle. While many companies have implemented planning before execution, the UK Design Council first codified this process as the Double-diamond approach, in a way that supports transformative experiences. In the following diagram, the first diamond represents planning phase, where teams define the right thing to build, and verify that. The second diamond is the Execution Phase, where teams build the right thing.

In the Definition phase, teams define strategy, including an experience outcome, engage in early design, craft prototypes, and evaluate their concepts in the market. Only after they have validated their concept do they move into Execution phase. It’s almost too simple really. In his book Inspired: How to Create Products Customers Love, Marty Cagan, points out that before you decide to build a product, you need to create a prototype. Then, get it in front of customers, and see if it’s what they need and will buy. Based on customer feedback, the product team then iterates the solution and incorporates it into the final plan of what will get built. The Double Diamond approach ensures teams have inspiring products that customers love!

Institute Multidisciplinary Decision Making Frameworks—The Triad
Experience-led companies that exceed the financial performance of their competition also leverage UX at a strategic level. Marty Cagan also points out in Inspired that to build products customers love, Engineering, Product Management, and User Experience need to engage in a joint decision making framework. Other teams contribute at different points, but differentiating on the experience requires including only these three groups in decision making around product direction. Product managers must be held to the standards of the intended experience outcome, which must be a decision made at the outset of a product’s development. This requires the User Experience team to participate, to help advocate for the experience, and then to help visualize the aligned vision.

On the other hand, executives often say they want one person accountable for the product. This is fine. However, being experience-led means that once teams have defined an experience outcome, they stick with it. From a Product Management standpoint, they agree to only release those capabilities that meet the intended experience and push others out.

People frequently ask how Apple releases such great products. Let’s take an example: When the iPhone first released, SMS (texting) was not the great experience initially defined. So, they shipped the first iPhone without SMS, and added it later, once the capability met the experience outcome. Internally, some product managers said the iPhone would fail without SMS. They were wrong: Getting SMS right was critical. Customers loved the initial iPhone, and loved it when Apple added SMS in a way that delighted them.
In experience-led companies, UX has a strategic voice as part of the triad, just as engineering and product management do.

Focus on the Total Customer Journey, not Just a Single UI
Focusing on the total customer and user experience across the total customer journey is crucial to driving significant financial return. Typically though, in-house corporate UX teams are asked to just design a single application. In reality, the UI is just one touch point into the total experience a user or customer has with your company. The Total UX includes every touch point. It includes a user’s first introduction to the company through marketing materials or a friend, their first and subsequent visits to the corporate web site, evaluating or trying out the product or service, the purchase process, first-time use, ongoing use, service and support, the upgrade process, and so on. When UX teams focus on just one aspect of an application, and another team focuses on another part of the application, and yet another team focuses on the marketing, it often creates a confusing and inconsistent experience. Why would we want the marketing message to differ from the actual product? Why would we want to make it easy to use a product, but make it difficult to decide which product to purchase? If a customer solution comprises several components, why would we make some components easy, and not others?

Forrester conducted research in mid 2014 highlighting that customer journey maps are among the hottest new artifacts, and that a majority of CEOs find them extremely useful. Their main value comes from the fact that they help knock down silos across their companies. A Customer Journey Map highlights all the different touch points a user has with a brand, from acquisition through purchase, usage, and support. They enable executives to bring teams together who would typically never work together to jointly solve problems for the customer.

Discover Emotional Drivers through Lean Ethnography
Great design leaders recognize that they need user researchers who can draw on the framework of Lean processes and rapid contextual research to engage in Lean Ethnography. During the Planning phase, such researchers rapidly identify not just unmet user needs, but also find the key emotional connectors to a product or service. They ensure the product is intuitive, satisfying, and delightful, not unlike the Uber and Lyft examples earlier.

4. Take Lessons from Creative Studios
Companies reinventing themselves around the experience (typically digital and industrial design) today are taking core lessons from design firms and creative agencies. Recently, dozens of large companies from Facebook and Google to Accenture and PwC, have spent Billions of dollars to acquire design agencies to reinvent themselves as experience-led. But, because they are not changing from the inside-out, most of these companies will not successfully reinvent themselves as experience-led. Other companies re-orienting themselves to become experience-led, including IBM, Honeywell, and Visa, are implementing the most valuable practices from design studios internally within their companies.

UX leaders have an opportunity to understand best practices, and leave limiting practices from poor agencies behind:
• Leverage a complete design team, not single designers whose voices get lost in a project team of dozens of members.
• Hire brilliant creative directors, who excel in the art of facilitation and constructive criticism. Great creative directors stimulate creative dialog, so that everybody contributes and articulates the underlying problem they are trying to solve with their idea. They never shut down dialog or bring an attitude that they must protect the group from bad ideas. Such creative directors simply have a wealth of creative successes that enable them to inspire and lead design efforts where the best ideas can be born and thrive.
• Build physical design studios. All companies undergoing a transformation to become experience-led build such studios. They facilitate concentrated creativity and focus on core design objectives, which raises the level of usability and delight of resulting products.
• Always produce inspiring designs—never compromise on the quality of output. If teams need something done too fast, help them find someone else who can help.
• Conduct collaboration workshops. We choose to facilitate Rapid Design Labs, which bring a collaborative and cross-functional approach to design and innovation that aligns organizations around a powerful vision rapidly. They foster ideation, collaboration, trust, and free expression. In these labs, cross-functional teams of designers, researchers, product managers, engineers, marketing, sales, and other key organizations work together to solve major business challenges. They engage in intensive brainstorming, purposeful play, design, user testing, and rapid prototyping, which foster trust and teamwork better than any HR offsite can.
• Create a strategic ecosystem of industry partnerships. They not only augment a team’s resources, but infuse creativity and challenge the internal team to greater heights and the most modern design trends.

5. Institute the Right Organization and Engagement Model

Organizational Structure: Studio-Business Unit Partnership
A successful emerging organization is the Centralized Studio – Business Unit Partnership model. Numerous companies, including IBM, GE, Honeywell, Visa, Airbnb, and more are leveraging this model, and Groupon has implemented a similar model. These companies recognize the need to invoke a central UX team in their UX studio, and that they must also have at least one responsible UX presence in each business unit. The studios create the space for creativity and collaboration that drives differentiated experiences. At the same time, members of the UX team in the business unit understand and align with business objectives and challenges, advocate for the needs of the business, and identify funding required by the business unit. Members of the UX team within the business unit are accountable to the success of UX initiatives and are measured against this success or failure.

Include Front-end development In the UX Studio
In practice, if a front-end development team sits with the design team and works collaboratively on the presentation-layer code, it can save up to 50% of the total time to build a presentation layer. Here’s how it works: The design team produces a set of screens and UI specifications to help the front-end development team understand the exact colors, fonts, colors, shading, padding, types of controls and gestures, and to ensure elements fit on the page in a pixel-perfect representation of the design. After producing a limited subset of UI specs, designers can produce and hand over no more than sketches.

If they work directly with front-end developers who are highly skilled translating designs into reality, these developers have the ability to take sketches and (with a few pages in place) produce pixel-perfect front-end code. From the perspective of speed, it helps significantly compress schedules. UX Designers and FE Developers must work together in person and informally, create high-quality visualizations fast, and iterate them fast. One team cannot throw designs over the fence to another group and have them build it with pixel perfection and make all of the gestures smooth. Speed and quality requires they be collocated, at least during the design phase of the project, so they can function as a single unit.

Front-end developers in companies that currently differentiate on the experience feel a deep need to constantly optimize the experience using the latest technologies. They fall more into the design camp than the development camp. Of course, the task of connecting the presentation layer to business logic and services, and then to the back-end, belongs to developers who sit in the Engineering organization.

UX teams need the technical skills of a front-end development team to work closely with the designers, to provide insights on what is possible currently, and what would be possible if we pushed technological boundaries. This helps both improve individual designs and make them more likely to succeed technically. It also helps the designers to become better at predicting what will be buildable, and what ideas they should abandon in favor of alternate strategies.

Most executives if asked would say they want to differentiate, yet when it comes to differentiating on the experience, few understand what it takes. Many executives think they can acquire a design firm and they’ll have great design throughout the company. Unfortunately, that is like wanting to lose weight, but not being willing to change one’s diet or exercise. Transforming a company to become experience-led takes dedication, focus, and investment, just as it does to differentiate on technology or any other area of business. Once a CEO and executive staff provide the support, they need a UX leader who knows how to inspire executives, their team, and customers. Leaders who can engage emotionally as well as logically can help facilitate a transformation that gives the company a competitive advantage and delights its customers.