Designers, Users, Personas and Customers Journeys. Is it 1997 Again?


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For those of us who have been around for a while and have had the opportunity to be building Web based solutions for the last 20 years or so, it is pretty likely you were exposed to the use of personas and customer journeys when designing a custom website.

Back then, if a company chose not to go out of the box, expensive and time intensive ERP tool route such as SAP for their solution, the option was to go custom build.
And this decision as to whether go big ERP or custom generally came from 3 decision points; 1.) The type of problem that the client was looking to solve through IT; 2.) The selection of vendor type to execute the work; and 3.) The amount of spend in the budget.

If the client had a large need to build out internal infrastructure IT, a large budget and a relationship with one of the big six accounting consulting firms, they were inclined to go with them to implement large ERP programs…and typically meant the implementation of SAP or Oracle or sometimes a package from Microsoft. The standard accepted delivery process consisted of was commonly referred to “Design by Acception,” which mean use as much out of the box as possible, validate the new system through conference room pilots once the system was configured and then plan on having your organization resources be retrained to adopt these processes. If some must have capability was not able to come from out of the box, then there was customization invoked, though this was kept to a minimum. The strength of this approach was that large needs that could be addressed through IT and companies felt that they were adopting industry best practices and thus were able to stay competitive with their rivals. Although upgrades were often expensive in nature, there were predictable and both function and cost. The weakness of this systematic approach, was that what came out of the box was what you got (pretty much the same solution your rivals got), and often it was a hard to use interface, designed by individuals who were not trained in UX design principles, making the systems hard to use. To counter this weakness, the implementing vendor would recommend well intentioned, but often poorly executed Organizational Change Management programs that had limited real impact and success for the purchasing company. It is important to remember that the world back in 1997 primarily consisted of IT departments providing services for a workforce who used computer stations at the workplace…in other words, mobility and bring your own device to work didn’t exist and didn’t matter.

The other scenario for a client back in the late 1990’s was to use a smallish “Web-studio” a vendor who would be able to build a custom solution, more often than not for a customer facing website, that while it was much more user friendly due to the fact that deployed the use of designers trained in UX solutions. The advantage here was that with a custom mentality, anything could be built, and if the designers and custom programmers knew their craft well, some amazing solutions could be built. The best of these shops deployed the tried and true design axiom of if you put yourself in the user’s shoes, you can design a solution that they will find a joy to use, and thus they will adopt it and use it often. Even better, if you conducted usability testing you could increase your odds for success, and if you solicited the end users for their thoughts and design suggestions on what they felt about the final published solution, you would get great insights on what 2.0 should look like. It was during this period that we first saw the emergence of the use of techniques and terms such as Personas, Customer Journeys, Task Analysis, Cognitive Engineering, and Customer Experience being deployed. The risk of a client selecting one of these web shops was that they typically were small in size and it was questionable that they could scale to properly support the successful products they built for their clients. There was also the factor that the buyer of the services often found themselves faced with trying to determine if these vendors were truly 100% focused on serving their client or were they more focused on the three year and out IPO plan. What is both interesting and important to note back then was the on and off trend of the large big 6 firms to acquire these custom web shops, though my personal experience was this was done not so much in the spirit of creating as hybrid of the best of both worlds of creating user-friendly solutions that could scale well, but more in the quest to share in the much higher market valuation phenomenon that VCs were giving these upstart web shops.

It is now 20 plus years later, and we all know the world has dramatically changed through the advent of Social Media, Cloud Infrastructure, Data Analytics, and Mobile Devices. Companies purchasing solutions have become the educated buyer through both years of experience of working with vendors (including the advent of offshore solutions), the use of their personal high tech devices and services in their lives that they want to extend their productivity in the workplace and new completion coming from newly minted challengers such as Google, Amazon and Twitter. The Digital Enterprise is the watchword of the hour, and I note with some amusement the reincarnation of the call for Personas and Customer Journeys, but this time not just from the custom solution providers, but also from the large ERP providers. Design Thinking has even started trending…a true sign of the times! I think this hybridization of is the right direction for the times, but at the same time I have my doubts as to whether the rush to deployment of these design disciplines are actually being executed by trained and certified resources, let alone experienced designers. Take my word on this; doing this right requires both art and science, and not just the command of the terminology and following a published recipe book. Design is science as valid engineering and architecture, and in some instances even more challenging, as that a designer must find insights that often can’t be readily seen through math and scientific method at first, but ultimately must be proven valid all the same. In our society, we have historically recognized the individuals such as Leonardo DaVinci, Filippo Brunelleschi, and Raymond Loewy, each ground-breaking inventors, engineers and architects, as transformational figures in history for their contributions as designers. For those of you not familiar with Brunellecschi and Loewy, Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) was an Italian architect, goldsmith, and sculptor. The first Renaissance architect, he also formulated the principles of linear perspective which governed pictorial depiction of space until the late 19th century; Raymond Loewy was one of the best-known industrial designers of the 20th century, designer of streamlined trains, the shape of the Coke bottle, Studebaker automobiles and the Space Shuttle. As a society, we are fortunate to be living in a time of great change, powered by technology, the use of enterprise data science and the digitalization of the economy. IOT will change everything and it is happening very fast. Let’s remember that as fascinating and seductive as the technology and data components are, we must remember to make users at the center of the solutions. And to make this happen, the answer to keep involving trained designers and their techniques. In fact, if we don’t do this, our attempts at successful IOT integration within multi-player system models and the digitalization of the economy will likely fail.

Corey Glickman
I am the global lead in Design & Innovation with Capgemini, a $14B solution integration consulting firm. I specialize in the formation of design and innovation programs, providing technology & business leadership experience as an expert in digital transformation, customer experience strategy, design, & the use of visualization. I have won 100's of awards, included being named one of the 100 most influential designers of the decade by AIGA. I currently blog weekly on how businesses are dealing with Digital Transformation, Design & IOT. I am a member of the HBR Advisory Council.


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