Mike Mills

If you’re lucky, at least one person in your organization – probably a graphic designer or product development manager – seems to have an aversion to the word “customer,” in favor of the word “user.” They’re always talking about “user needs” and what users want and don’t want.

If you haven’t given much thought to the distinction, you should. In fact, give that person a raise and plenty of budget to hire great people. They’re advocates for user-centered design.

User-centered design principles are too often confined to product development or graphic arts departments. This shouldn’t be the case: Meeting user needs, instead of focusing after the fact on “customer satisfaction,” should be the foundation of your entire organization.

Customers are people you want to keep happy so revenue doesn’t nosedive. The very word invokes the selling side of a business (customers belong to markets, products and services are sold to customers, etc.). Being user-centric, on the other hand, puts the focus on the creation and delivery of the product or service rather than the sale; it also concentrates on the needs of those customers, instead of the needs of the sales team to sell to them.

When you think of your audience as users instead of customers, your orientation shifts to the more intimate and difficult job of meeting individual people’s needs.

Any decent restaurant owner understands the distinction: They’re not just peddling food. The noise level, lighting, décor and cleanliness are also obvious factors of a good dining experience. Other, more subtle factors include the server’s attitude and availability, the timing of the courses, the way the food looks on the plate and whether the maître d’ acts like he knows you.

Empathy is the key here. Successful restaurant owners try to deliver an experience they themselves would like to have. Too often, for-profit and nonprofit leaders alike get trapped in the silos of their existing products and services – and lose sight of whether their offerings truly meet user needs. That is, until some small new rival arrives and starts stealing their market share by delivering a superior experience (think, of course, of Apple vs. Microsoft, but also Progressive Insurance, Zappos shoes, the Peapod grocery delivery service and Airbnb).

By focusing on users instead of customers, your horizon also broadens outside of your current customer base. How many of your users are not yet paying customers? The freemium business model – which involves creating a layer of free goods or services, to entice people to ultimately purchase – depends on a user-centric focus, not just for product development but for all aspects of delivery.

In fact, it’s hard to think of an example where user needs should not be foremost in mind during routine business decisions. To put users at the center of your organization, rather than allowing them only a brief say during the product development process, follow this roadmap:

  • Bring in an expert on user-centered design and hold a Personas discovery workshop with your staff. Personas are used to create reliable and realistic representations of your key audience segments for reference. The workshop will reveal your employees' best assumptions regarding types of users and what kinds of jobs they need done.
  • Once you come up with three to five assumption-based Personas of users and their distinct needs, validate those assumptions with existing (or new) market research, one-on-one interviews with actual people who “personify” those Personas, and your own web usage and customer data.
  • Perform a gaps analysis to determine how well your existing set of products and services meets those demonstrated user needs. Those gaps will reveal market opportunities as well as ways to improve your current offerings.
  • Make sure your entire staff understands and buys into these Personas, as they can become constant, valuable companions in future discussions about all kinds of decisions.

Speaking of staff, make sure to include their needs as “users” of the tools and methods you use to create your products and services. Those users’ needs are often left out of the discussion, making it difficult for your organization to meet the needs of your external users.

Customer Experience, Product Development

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