Customer Obsession is the New Design

The headline in Wired couldn’t have been more provocative: “Why Airbnb’s New Head of Design Believes ‘Design-Led’ Companies Don’t Work.” Say what? Haven’t people like Kleiner Perkins’ John Maeda spent time convincing us that a design-led company is the template for success? And isn’t Airbnb itself the poster child for ‘design-led’ companies?

Needless to say, a lot of designers freaked out when reading that article. But Alex Schleifer, Airbnb’s new head of design, started an important conversation even if he didn’t quite pull it to its logical conclusion. Let’s boil down his argument:

  • ‘Design’ (whatever that means) has a seat at the executive table.
  • No one has quite figured out what a ‘culture of design’ means.
  • Typically companies do this by:
    • Sprinkling in designers throughout the company; or
    • Implement roving design teams to help with various projects.
  • Schleifer seems to mean “graphic designers” when he talks about “designers”
  • What he really wants are people who are “user advocates” rather than designers.
  • The title “designer” inhibits discussion rather than further it.

Let me say that there are a lot of graphic designer and user interface specialist who are very focused on end-user. And an awful lot more who are not. This whole, somewhat misguided discussion reminds me of the “digital” initiatives of the past 10-15 years.

In order to “get digital” companies hired chief digital officers, they purchased digital agencies to embed into the existing culture and they assigned digital specialists to sprinkle throughout the enterprise. And they got the same results companies are getting by doing this with designers: minimal.

But digital isn’t about the category or the functionality. No person in the real world is thinking “now I’m digital so I do this.” Digital was and still is about how people’s lives have changed in the 21st century and how their habits, interactions and expectations have changed. It has nothing to do with code.

Design is supposedly the same, which is why the Kelley brothers at IDEO are on such a crusade. It’s not simply about the interface or form or beauty (although it might incorporate those elements). It’s about understanding how people live their lives so we might create solutions with meaning. The Airbnb interface is important but it’s completely secondary to filling an unmet need or desire on multiple levels. And then it needs to look good and work flawlessly.

Alex Schleifer posits that Airbnb and others really need more user advocates. It doesn’t matter whether they are called ‘designers’ or not.

I think he didn’t go far enough. I think what companies need are more people who are Customer Obsessed. People who are so interested and committed to the people they are creating and designing for that they are willing to spend time, take risks and admit that they personally might be wrong. People who are so Customer Obsessed that they are willing to have the hard discussions with other people in the organization. People who are so Customer Obsessed that they don’t settle but are continually trying to understand what else they can do for their customers.

You can’t talk about Apple without recognizing Steve Jobs’ obsession. Insanely Great was about how other people would feel using one of his products. But you can see that in other, less sexy companies, like Intuit or Proctor & Gamble, both of whom have attempted to implement a culture of design.

Listen to Intuit’s founder and long time leader Scott Cook. Even though Intuit was a market leader Cook came to the realization that he and others didn’t understand its customers well enough. He reignited his customer obsession and implemented a design thinking culture in the enterprise to give employees methods to become more customer obsessed.

Listen to P&G’s A.G. Lafley. He recognized that despite having more market research than anyone in the world, P&G had no idea how their customers really lived. His design-led culture was about becoming more obsessed with its customer.

My personal favorite is Doug Dietz, one of the original designers of the MRI. He’s famous on the design circuit for redesigning the MRI and patient rooms for little kids. You know when most people read or watch Dietz story, they ooh and aah about how cool the rooms look. And they do. But Dietz is obsessed with the little kids and the hospital personnel caring for them. That’s the real power of the story.

One challenge with all of this is the word Design. Most people commonly associate that word with other people who make graphics. Calling everyone Designers isn’t working very well as an antidote.

The Customer Obsessives use design tools as a method for creating something new. It’s a process; it has a large variety of tools; it only works if you commit to it. Using a design tool or following one design thinking (thinking? This is about doing!) doesn’t automatically make someone into a designer.

You can be customer obsessive if you’re a CEO or a sales manager or a user interface specialist. You can be customer obsessive if you work in Finance or HR (where your customers are really employees).

If you’re customer obsessive, you must know what matters to someone else. You feel the drive to solve their problem first as a way of solving yours. That’s where innovation that matters happens.

Let’s talk less about design and designers and design thinking. Let’s talk more about design processes and design tools as the necessary ammunition for Customer Obsessives.

Customer Obsession is the new design. Start your engines…

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