Machines of aimless intent: silos and user experience

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 every 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 into the key card holder, something I was expected to discover.

As it turned out, it ended up a perfectly enjoyable stay. But in those first few minutes, 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.

Around 10 years ago, I switched my bank account because of 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 for my problems was given as “that’s another department… we don’t deal with that here.” 

Departments are a reality in any organisation of course. As conduits of conflicting priorities or processes however, silos are self-serving, destructive entities. Siloed organisations are machines of aimless intent, efficient only at generating endless reasons why end user experiences can’t be made better.

Customers and are not interested in how your organisation is structured. When organisational divisions become visible to them, it is at the cost of a cohesive experience.

One of the root causes of these problems 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. And while they may be aware of barriers to progress, these become accepted as insurmountable obstacles. The result can be a culture that simply accepts ways of working that do not deliver value. Expensive consultants called into these situations make a huge impact by simply reflecting what customers are experiencing back at the organisation. The real work comes with putting things right.

Cross-departmental initiatives are hard work, no question. They require individuals or teams with drive and resilience in the face of inertia and defensiveness, or even the rampant virus of cynicism. At the very least, leadership needs to clear the way for ideas to thrive across divisions.

Customer-centred initiatives can be a unifying force to counter the relentless struggle against imposed friction.

Hard work it may be, but the option not to get rid of barriers to better user experience 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.