Human experience isn’t a discipline: it’s a mindset

Human experience is in danger of become another buzzword, another piece of jargon. But it's not: it's a critical mindset for building better businesses and products.

Why are we so often better at loving things than we are at loving people?

Human beings are, if nothing else, wonderful abstraction machines. We’re quite capable of investing deep emotion in abstract concepts like fictional characters, brands and companies. Do you wage war online on behalf of Apple or Samsung? Why? These are both giant corporations, neither of which really need our help in marketing themselves.

These are conceptual entities, without feelings, emotions or any ability to have a real relationship with us. And yet, we invest our emotions in them.

How, then, are we so bad at focusing on human experience in real people we have to deal with?

At one level, it’s a matter or simplicity. Brands are often simpler to claim allegiance to, because they lack the messy complexities of human relationships. Sports teams have known this for decades, and exploit it week in and week out.

It’s also a matter of focus, though. The reality of pretty much everyone’s life — being a hermit is less of a career option than it was in medieval times — is that we are constantly dealing with other humans — other people. Most of those interaction sit on one side or the other of a line between colleagues and clients. Maintaining focus on both is hard — and we tend to botch it. And so, many people find it easier to avoid the whole issue by, consciously or not, choosing one side or the other.

Which human’s experience?

Loyalty to your own company is about a human experience, but it’s about the staff’s human experience: the need for purpose, comradeship and most of all money and all it represents, like shelter, a full belly and the other essentials of life. Putting your focus on the staff’s experience can lead to a talented and loyal staff who can do really great work. But let that focus become too firm, then you neglect the customer, and the company becomes a machine for sustaining its own existence, rather than actually serving the customers.

In the last few weeks of my last corporate job, over half a decade ago now, I sat in a planning meeting for our mobile app strategy. A marketing person who had just joined the committee outlined their “new vision” for our first app’s “on-boarding” experience, which allowed the company to, and I quote:

”Capture really rich data about the customer which will be useful to us, and seems like a fair exchange for all the value they’ll get from the app!”

What that translated to was three pages of forms to fill in before you could start using the app. You don’t need to be a “digital marketing guru” to guess how that went down.

And so, what we’re actually seeking here is real balance, rather than the self-serving illusion of one. The person making that terrible decision about the app would have sworn blind that they were customer-centric, because customer-centricity was a company value. But it was a jargon figleaf, covering up the fact that the business increasingly existed to serve itself, and their self-worth was invested in serving the company.

Storing up business pain in every poor interaction

A company that prioritises the needs of the staff — or, more often, the management — will eventually suffer financially, as a competitor with a greater focus on the customer experience can rapidly undermine its profitability. And thus the reasons you’ve focused on the corporate good – the security and the comradeship – get undermined. By seeking simplicity, you lose that which you really sought.

What happens when we lose sight of the consumer as a person? This:

Because marketers and brands increasingly apply digital without giving much thought to consumers as people. Examples include ‘shouting brands’ (being interrupted in our digital interactions, e.g. YouTube adverts); ‘creepy personalization’ (pushing messages and adverts based on our interests or life milestones) and ‘adding complexity’ (multiple passwords that make technology difficult to use).

That’s how so much “social media marketing” ends up essentially anti-social in nature. At some point we forget we are intruding into personal discussion and relationship spaces for people, because we’re so focused on the corporate goal.

Killing your company to keep the customers happy

But there’s an equal and opposite danger here. A company that prioritises the experience of the customer over the experience of the staff will be an unpleasant place to work, and will suffer inevitable erosion of its ability to serve the customer in the medium to long term.

In the digital world we have a habit of lionising businesses that are using growth to outpace their structural problems. Amazon, for example, is usually a ruthlessly customer-focused experience, but at the cost of both staff and suppliers. I find the ability to order pretty much anything and to have it in the house by the end of the following day endlessly seductive (particularly because, like many journalists, I’m a bit of a deadline junkie – which means I leave everything until the last minute).

You don’t have to look hard to find plenty of examples of the cost of this on their employees or contractors. A failure to take account of the basic biological needs of its drivers seems to be an on-going problem, for example.

Let’s further complicate matters. Who is your client? It can be more complicated that you think. Historically, many enterprise software companies have been great at producing product that keep the IT manager and the support teams happy, but make the rest of the staff’s working lives miserable.

The human experience of the IT acquisitions team is being well-cared for. The experience of the front line staff? Not so much. There are people involved in all sorts of relationships all around your business. That makes focusing on human interaction hard, because whom do you prioritise?

One last complication

Another seductive danger here is to obsess about technology. Technology, in of itself, is empty and void of purpose. It is in its interactions with people that it takes on purpose and meaning. It is, quite simply, a tool, and like all tools, it can be used for good or ill. A knife can carve out great art, chop food for a meal, or be used to end an innocent life.

Many digital transformation project fail because they focus on the tools, rather than the people. How often these projects are framed around the idea of installing a platform, or a set of tools, rather than thinking about how those tools serve both the staff and the customers of the business? Perhaps it’s a facet of the sheer newness of these technologies to many people, but this is a pattern of behaviour we’d find utterly bizarre in any other industry.

Could you imagine a restaurant designed around the knives?

Or an office where the organising principle was the photocopier?

Now you could argue that a library was organised around books — but that would be to miss the point. Libraries are build around the organisation of books, so that both the librarian and the reader can find them.

A road to building human experiences

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Is there a solution here? Yes, of course. It’s at once incredibly simple and astonishingly hard.

It’s simple, because all you have to do is remember that people are what matters.

It’s hard, because you have to balance the manifold needs and wants of a whole range of people.

It is, in fact, an impossible task. You can never completely balance the needs of everyone involved in the chains of connection that our businesses operate in. That’s life. The complex socio-dynamics of humanity are an ever-fluid series of interactions that aren’t susceptible to simplistic answers.

However, that doesn’t mean we should give up. So much of what we explored at NEXT17, around the idea that Digital Sucks, was that we are making it suck because we prioritise the business and the product over the human need. And we’re seeing the consequences of that in the current tech backlash. We need top focus so much more on making these products work for the people in ways they find positive and not damaging, because we’re doing a pretty damn good job of making them work for the companies right now.

That starts one day, and one person at a time. Human experience is not a discipline nor a set of tools. It’s a mindset.

Here’s an anecdote for you. A decade ago, I started commuting to work by car, after spending my whole career before that commuting on public transport. And the first couple of months were a stressful experience. 45 minutes on London’s roads during rush hour is not my idea of a fun time. One day, I got in my car, and vowed to make the commute as good an experience for everyone as I can. I never rushed for gaps in traffic, or to slip a few meters ahead of others. I slowed down to let people out of side roads, and I gave priority to pedestrians whenever it was safe for me to do so.

Did it slow me down? Of course. Did it get me to work happier? Oh, yes. And was I more productive as a result? You betcha.

Embracing human experience means embracing the complexity of what we do. It means rejecting simple notions of what the “right” thing is to do. And it means striving to make people’s lives better whenever we can through out interactions and products.

It might mean swapping short term growth for long term sustainability. But the best — the most human — businesses understand that that’s the smart way to do business.

Lead Photo by Leon on Unsplash