Silo mentality: where great customer experience goes to die

decrepit machines

Despite working in experience design, I don’t go around looking for opportunities to criticise products or services. Like most people, I just want to get on with what I need to do and accept that occasional lapses in service are bound to happen now and then. Ten minutes in to a recent hotel stay, however, I was already making notes.

  • After taking my name, the receptionist promptly disappeared through a door and left me standing for 5 minutes. What they had omitted to say was that they were checking if the room was ready.
  • The room key card I was issued didn’t work, requiring a return trip to reception to report it. Then a wait for another to be prepared.
  • A wifi password supplied in the guest welcome pack didn’t let me connect. The correct one was written on the keycard holder, something I was expected to discover.

It turned out to be a perfectly enjoyable stay. In those first few minutes though, I was questioning the wisdom of booking. It was a small example of how seemingly unrelated lapses by a vendor added up to poor overall customer experience.

Some 10 years ago, I switched my bank due to a series of let-downs. I was prepared to go through the pain (at that time) of moving current and savings accounts away from a bank of 12+ years. During a protracted series of phonecalls, one explanation offered for the difficulties I was facing was: “that’s another department… we don’t deal with that here.” 

Departments are a reality in any organisation of course. But as conduits of conflicting priorities or processes, silos are self-serving, destructive entities. Variations on Conway’s Law litter our daily physical and digital interactions. Customers are not interested in how your organisation is structured. When it becomes visible to them, it is usually at the cost of a cohesive experience.

A common problem is that teams working on a product or service know intimately how everything hangs together; they are well versed in the complexity of what’s being created. This awareness can surface as a tendency to see difficult challenges as insurmountable obstacles. Very often, process is wheeled out as a defence of current practices, or a cure-all elixir. Cross-departmental initiatives are hard work, which tends to make them unattractive. The result can be a culture that simply accepts ways of working that do not deliver value. 

Naturally, this is all rich, raw material for designers, and service design in particular. Time and again as a design consultant the most radical thing I could do was to reflect what customers were going through back at the organisation. A lack of focus on, or understanding of, creating value for customers is a fundamental issue.

A customer-centered perspective can be the unifying force in the relentless struggle against imposed friction, while also providing a guiding light for new initiatives. Leadership should look to clear the way for ideas to thrive across divisions. Individuals or teams are required with sufficient drive and resilience to face down inertia and defensiveness, even the rampant virus of cynicism.

Siloed organisations are machines of aimless intent, efficient only at generating endless reasons why customer and user experience can’t be made better. Silos are anti-customer and anti-value.

Hard work it may be, but the option not to get rid of such barriers is all but gone. Ultimately every organisation needs to decide – consciously – whether defending silos and siloed thinking is more important than creating and retaining customers.

UX Belfast at Belfast Design Week 2019

As a Belfast Design Week fringe event, a collaboration with Ladies that UX Belfast, with a notable guest author and great local content, it’s no surprise that this week’s UX Belfast meetup was the largest to date.

Charlotte Tracey got the talks going with insights into the power of data and immersed us in the world of qual and quant data.

Our guest author Jonathan Shariat was nothing less than gracious and generous, in spite of an AV glitch leading to 20 minutes of dead air. Jonathan brought to life the background and content of ‘Tragic Design’, the O’Reilly Media book he has co-authored with Cynthia Savard Saucier. All agreed that the book is required reading for designers wanting to create positive change in the world. A donation was made to Jonathan’s nominated charity, AbilityNet, to thank him for his time.

Ioana Enea closed out the evening with an entertaining talk on her experience of improv and how it has enriched her work as a designer.

Thanks to Jonathan, Ladies That UX Belfast, Puppet for hosting, and to co-host & former colleague Marie-therese McCann for the original idea.

This is my seventh year of running the UX Belfast meetup. It continues to gain momentum and draw new faces, as the design community in Belfast surges. Particular thanks are due to Belfast Design Week for demonstrating what a broad and diverse design community it is. I’m proud to be a small part of it.

UX Belfast 2019 is go

UX Belfast 2019 got off to a tremendous start with two prominent practitioners of human-centred design.

Kate O’Neill, author of Tech Humanist, joined us from New York, taking questions from the Belfast audience and expanding on the ideas put forward in her book.

Rebecca Walsh CEng gave us valuable insights on the discipline of service design, and the work that she and Big Motive are involved with.

Both guests highlighted how UX and CX are only subsets of the larger concern of human-centred design. As Kate has put it: “a dignified, respectful relationship with all the human stakeholders in the economy goes a long way toward creating a sustainable, successful future for us all”.

On a personal note, it’s been gratifying to watch UX Belfast grow from its bookclub roots into a regular fixture in the Belfast design calendar. Much more challenging and stimulating content is planned throughout for 2019. Sign up for updates at uxbelfast.org

Thanks to all who came along, to Kate and Rebecca, and to Puppet Belfast once again for their hospitality in such an ideal venue.

The selected charity this time was Code Your Future. Learn more and donate at codeyourfuture.io

Founding principles

Quite a number of Monday evenings this year were spent working alongside Big Motive as a design coach on the Catalyst Co-Founders programme.

For those with even an inkling of a product idea, Co-Founders offers invaluable early validation (or otherwise), outcomes can be entry on to fully-fledged incubation programmes, a pivot on the original idea, or abandonment. The latter outcome can still be termed a ’successful’ outcome. Some folks who could have poured months or years of their lives into something that simply had no inherent value learn the harsh truth much earlier than they otherwise would.

Based firmly around the d.School design thinking model, and led by Big Motive, Co-Founders takes small teams through a process which forces them to examine the essence of a product idea. Using tried-and-tested tools a set of tools, they deconstruct the problem they are trying to solve, then reconstruct their solution with greater clarity and objectivity. It may have its critics (and let’s be clear that all successful frameworks and processes do) but design thinking, when fully committed to by stakeholders and teams, the process simply delivers.

I’ve been amazed at the resilience and inventiveness of the individuals and teams. Participants tend to be full-time professionals, with an idea they just can’t let go of. It may or may not be related to their day jobs; but in each case they want to find out if their idea can play out in practice the way they have developed it in their heads. Watching teams go from being at a loss to what they can possibly do next, to becoming resourceful and forceful in progressing their product idea is so rewarding.

I’m not overly familiar with Yogi Bhajan, but my word is he a great source of quotes:

“If you want to learn something, read about it. If you want to understand something, write about it. If you want to master something, teach it.”

I have lectured and coached increasingly over the last five years, and I’ll vouch for this. In many cases, I’ll agree to these engagements because – selfishly – I know how much I will get out of it personally. I’ve been integrating design thinking techniques into client work, and more recently in Puppet, for the last decade. But teaching it, and seeing the enlightenment it brings, continues to inspire me.

Looking back at the year of 2018, I’m filled with a lot of gratitude for all kinds of experiences. Yogi Bhajan has my back again:

“An attitude of gratitude brings great things.”

I attempt to surface this very feeling in all that I do, again for selfish reasons. Gratitude is, I believe, the most sustaining and affirming feeling available to us. We can encourage it and cultivate it. Working with Big Motive is a pleasure and I’m thankful to them for inviting me in as one of the coaches.

Running the UX Belfast meetup has provided me with a number of transformative encounters during the year, not least with attendees who come from all manner of organisations and businesses. Book authors we have spoken with have been utterly fantastic in terms of the amount of time they have been prepared to lend to offer to a small group of designers perhaps halfway around the world. The insights and knowledge they have been prepared to share with us has been similarly impressive.

Most recently, Jorge Arango was particularly inspiring while talking about his book ‘Living in Information’. He has since become another key individual I follow and look up to as I continue to develop as a designer and a professional. I heartily commend his newsletter and blog for its sheer quality of content. And of course the book itself. In keeping with the original topic of this post, here’s a piece from Jorge in November 2018 where he puts forward a model for teaching (and learning).

I’ll cut this short of a comprehensive 2018 retrospective. Suffice to say it was another year in which I was conscious of growing and developing. Thank you to everyone who offered me inspiration in the last twelve months, whether in person, in writing or on video. The experiences of 2018 have given me ideas and new inspiration for 2019. You can’t ask for more from a professional year.

UX Belfast, October 2018

October’s UX Belfast saw the mesmerising Jorge Arango take questions and talk us through his new book ‘Living in Information’ – a compelling mix of practical advice and thoughtful reflection on the responsibility of designers to create what Jorge terms ‘generative’ online environments.

To thank Jorge for his time, the meetup made a donation to his selected charity, The Long Now Foundation. For more information visit http://longnow.org

Puppet Belfast once again provided food and drink in what was our largest meetup to date.

Plans are afoot to evolve UX Belfast to better serve and represent the UX community in Belfast, offering talks and insights into the work of local professionals while keeping one eye firmly on books, learning, and professional development.