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How User-Centered Design Can Create a Better Workplace

Good user experience is good for business. The last two decades have brought plenty of evidence that user-centered design (UCD) improves not just products and services, but also a company’s bottom line. One of the original definitive sources on the return-on-investment (ROI) of UCD distinguishes between three types of UCD benefits. Internal ROI brings added efficiency during the development of a product or service. External ROI makes products and services more profitable for the company once they are released. Finally, social ROI refers to the perception of internal stakeholders that UCD provides a return on investment, even when there is no data to justify that perception.

While many modern businesses are skilled at calculating the internal and external ROI of UCD, social ROI is often overlooked. We want to bring justice to it. In fact, we want to change the very definition of user-centered design to fully embrace its social ROI. As such, we are putting forward a new definition of UCD that we want design and business communities to adopt:

“User-centered design is a process that connects all phases of a product development lifecycle and all members of a product team with the intended users of the product or service. It is also a culture that results in a better workplace and a more satisfying job.”

Can we support the claim we make? Helping dozens of clients to advance their products and reinvent their offerings, we have noticed a strong correlation: the more our clients practice UCD within their organizations, the more stories we hear about improved communication among team members, about better alignment between product teams and executives, about reduced tensions and arguments over product features, and about increased camaraderie and a sense of purpose. Why does this happen? Is it pure coincidence that clients who talk about these things are the same ones who have adopted user-centered design as part of their organizational culture?

Cultural change is a long and difficult process. However, even small steps can make a big difference. At Artefact, we are keen on not only delivering “the fish” to our clients but also on teaching them “how to fish.” This means sharing the tools we ourselves use, as well as embarking on knowledge transfer projects like our recent engagement with Group Health. Here, we want to share a story of how team-based UCD training started such a change within one organization.

The client: Vulcan Inc.

Vulcan Inc. is a nimble private company with a diverse portfolio. From real estate business and financial investments to an in-house media company and sports teams – Vulcan has lots of interests and aspirations. Having very strong leadership passionate about innovation keeps a steady flow of ground-breaking ideas coming, and employing exceptional talent makes many of those ideas possible. In short, Vulcan is ambitious, smart and bold; it seeks the demanding and builds the difficult.

It’s not hard to imagine then how excited we were to work with Vulcan Innovation Lab to help the team improve their UCD practice through training.

The approach

When an Innovation Lab within a highly innovative company talks about improvements, off-the-shelf training is not the right solution. One needs to dig deeper to understand the context and consciously design the desired ripple effect within a specific organization.

To do so, we invested in understanding Vulcan training needs from the ground up. We invited more than half of prospective Vulcan trainees to an interactive requirements-gathering session where we mapped out their individual and collective goals, needs, levels of UCD expertise, challenges, and opportunities. By the end of that conversation, we defined specific success criteria for the training we would be doing.

What we learned from such in-depth probing on requirements made a big impact on the training we created. Instead of focusing on explaining and practicing specific UCD techniques, we centered Vulcan’s training on building a roadmap of impact that identified key opportunities to engage the organization in UCD thinking, in the ways most influential for the specific Vulcan’s context.

The training

There are many ways to customize training to address the needs of a specific organization. Based on the input from the requirements gathering session with Vulcan, we focused on two: optimizing the training for the diverse multi-disciplinary team, and customizing it by using Vulcan’s own project as an example.

Training a multidisciplinary team

User-centered design is a multi-disciplinary activity, and we strongly believe that UCD training should be equally multidisciplinary. This presents both advantages and challenges.

The benefits of mixing all relevant disciplines, from marketing to software development, into one training session are plenty.  Mixed sessions allow for a common understanding of the content, facilitate richer discussions, encourage exchanges of diverse opinions, and build empathy towards other disciplines and their needs. Ultimately, training multi-disciplinary teams radically changes the training experience itself, taking it to the next intellectual and emotional level.

The challenges of multi-disciplinary sessions are fewer and can be managed with careful planning and mindful facilitation. Mostly, they relate to the different levels of participants’ familiarity with the subject. To mitigate this, consider the following:

  • Aim training at the level above the “lowest common denominator”. Cover the basics to give everyone a shared vocabulary and foundation, but raise the bar and provide support to less experienced people, so that they feel challenged but able to catch up.
  • Offer homework and background reading to participants with lower level of expertise in the subject. Despite being busy, many will opt for doing it before the training if they know that it will make them better prepared for the level of the conversation you will have – especially if they were part of the requirements gathering exercise.
  • Draw on expertise of more experienced people in the room, ask them for recommendations and engage them as ad-hoc facilitators for interactive activities. Acknowledging their expertise, you let the rest of the team know that they have in-house experts they can go to after the training. Ultimately, you will help foster longer-term relations during training.

Customizing training examples

To make the training truly relevant, we used one case study throughout the training – Vulcan’s own project. With the help of team members familiar with the project, we prepared a project brief that became our basis for all training exercises. Using Vulcan’s own project to talk about different phases of the project lifecycle, from planning to post-deployment, help us uncover even more salient points about Vulcan’s culture and approach to innovation. By discussing which specific activities and techniques from the range covered during the session would be easier to implement and which could face challenges, we created a tailored set of recommendations for short-term and long-term wins.

The outcomes

High customization, from an in-depth requirements analysis to using the team’s own project as a case study, made even a short training session a big success. In just half a day, we got to the level of specificity and relevance that few longer sessions can achieve.

The training triggered many “aha!” moments for the Vulcan team, but one theme was a strong winner: UCD is about culture, transparency, being comfortable to acknowledge the needs and challenges of different disciplines in a frank conversation, and having a common big picture. It’s about being a better organization that creates better products.

Will the excitement survive? Only time will tell, but a month after the training the Vulcan team has already changed the way they think and work with each other. “After the workshop, we are starting to speak a more UCD-focused language. We talk about design principles, the whole experience, and product adoption. We did a usability study the week after our training, immediately applying workshop lessons directly to the product development.,” says Teresa Demel, the Marketing Manager of Vulcan Innovation Labs. Mars Tanumihardja, Innovation Program Manager adds: “I noticed an immediate shift when the engineers started to be interested in owning the business strategy. I’ve never seen that level of interest and ownership before.”

It’ll take Vulcan a while to prove internal and external ROI of user-centered design, using its own data. But one outcome is clear – the social ROI is already there.