Design Thinking: Finding Common Ground

In a previous post about leading with design, I committed to sharing the stories of our design thinking journey at Pitney Bowes, and I’m back with an example today. Relay Communications Hub is a flagship Pitney Bowes SaaS product, and is one of our first attempts at a totally new way of conceiving, building, deploying and supporting a software product. The first version of this product, billed as a true MVP, was nominated for an internal innovation award; this attests to the strong talent and efforts that are driving our SaaS business forward.

SaaS product development is a huge leap from traditional product development, especially at enterprise scale. The architectural model is vastly different, the product roadmaps are more lightweight and incremental, and the release cadence is much faster. Bruce McCarthy points out that one of the major differences is the subscription-based business model, where the product is paid for on an ongoing, usually monthly basis, rather than as a single, larger license purchase. Along with this model comes a change in the way we interact with our customers, where the product experience becomes an ongoing conversation with our customers rather than a sales in-and-out transaction. In order to retain customer subscriptions, a lot more effort is required to keep product users engaged and regularly deriving value so that they are happy to pay for the subscription fee when their monthly bill comes due. In this way, the rise of the SaaS business model has contributed to the growing emphasis on creating and delivering great experiences that keep users coming back for more.

The shift in consumer expectations is also very much an outcome of the prevalent app economy, where people have become very comfortable using technology outside the realm of work. Apps are a ubiquitous part of daily life and they empower (and occasionally govern) people’s activities across a huge cross-section of human behaviors, like health monitoring, transportation, social collaboration, personal banking, and more. The app economy has cultivated a high comfort level with technology in offering valuable functionality to the masses in a way that is supremely consumable — easy to use, time saving, useful and fun.

The enterprise has responded to this shift in consumer expectations by working to enhance the user experience, and make it a truly differentiating factor in the product’s value proposition. As Jared Spool tells it, this manifests in solutions that frequently happen in silos, like the marketing concept of end-to-end customer experience, the service design of customer touch-points by professional services organizations, and user experience strategy development within usability and human factors teams. These teams are all trying to solve the same problem in their own way, but run the risk of creating a disconnected user experience despite their best intentions. The challenge that teams face is breaking down the silos and creating a single, cross-disciplinary approach to delivering the best user experience possible.

There are many flavors of UX maturity models, and the challenges of cross-functional collaboration across the organization make them that much harder to implement. The keys to success in this environment are continually cultivating a shared product vision that rallies the team behind common goals, lots of useful communication (read: not endless status reporting meetings), and a baseline understanding that change will be incremental and that persistence in taking small steps forward will eventually result in great progress.

At Pitney Bowes, we have adopted the cross-functional agile retrospective as a way to regularly reflect on our UX process — this helps us see what we are doing well, what is not working, and what concrete steps we can take towards continuous improvement. This has been piloted a couple of times, most recently at our Relay Hub in-person kickoff for planning our next release. The retrospective strongly supports the goal of continuous incremental improvement, and this round’s outcomes include a commitment to greater transparency and tighter communication.

Another forward step in design thinking that we have taken together is spending more time with our customers to bring a deeper level of clarity to the problems we are trying to solve, and to validate that the solutions we have imagined work in the real world that our customers live in. Our most recent round of user research delivered interesting insights that help us understand our client needs better, and feed into product planning for our next release. These small steps and others are paving the way towards our success at using design thinking methods to build modern SaaS apps that resonate in today’s marketplace. The spirit in which this work has been undertaken truly reflects the Pitney Bowes values that James Fairweather has expressed so well: “We are passionate about building solutions clients love. And working with clients to ensure the solutions fit. That is the reward of a craftsman.”