What Is A Human-Centered Organization?

What does it mean to be a human-centered organization? This is the most common question we, at Tangerine Lab, receive. To demonstrate, let’s look at some examples of the challenges that have been brought to our team:

· A very large national charity network, with the mission to eliminate poverty, believed that it was delivering an inconsistent and non user-friendly digital experience across its digital assets to the clients it serves, its donors and its volunteers. It needed to reevaluate and improve that experience.

· A foreign government wanted to influence the health and nutrition behaviors of mothers, communities and children in order to reduce chronic child malnutrition and stunting.

· A cloud software startup believed that it had invested all its early life focus on the growth of its customer base, but it was time to shift some of that focus to customer experience and retention of its base.

These are just a handful of examples of how different and unique the challenges across organizations and sectors can be. Within these organizations there is a range of ambitions and hypotheses about how far the solutions should go. Should we just fix what is broken? Should we start with a clean slate? Should we blaze the trail with some innovative ideas? Should we rationalize our current products and services? Where do we even start from?

The answers to these questions are not all locked up within the walls of your organizations or buried in your assumptions. What you can deliver to your customers will depend on one thing: do you, the person in charge of crafting and executing the said solution or strategy, have a deep understanding of the motivations, expectations, needs and emotions of the involved and affected humans?

A “human centered” organization creates solutions to challenges by placing the perspective of the involved and affected humans in the center of the solution creation process. A human centered organization begins with “empathizing” by employing several techniques to develop a deep understanding of these humans through psychographics — the study and classification of people according to their attitudes, aspirations, and other psychological criteria — and not solely their demographics. This understanding is crucial because there is now an increasing body of scientific studies that has shown while we are persuaded by logic, we are actually moved to action and decisions by our emotions.

Broadly speaking, in the context of human-centered organizations and their challenges, there are three groups of individuals that are of interest. They are:

1. The Leadership Team

This is the executive team, the members of the C-suite, the decision makers and those who define the organization’s strategic imperatives. They are also the individuals that prioritize the investments in resources (time, money and human). It is critical that there be an alignment of viewpoints among this group of individuals. Do they all believe the challenge at hand, for example, customer experience is critical to the success of the organization? Why? How does each of these individuals define the challenge? What is their definition of success? In their everyday life experiences as individuals, not executives, what events have led to these definitions and opinions? Do they think their employees and their customers think or are motivated and feel in the same as they do? What is the evidence of that?

More often than not, we have found that there has to be some level of realignment, sometimes extensively, sometimes minor, and how the leadership team sees the challenge. Often, where this team assumes they have full alignment of perspectives with each other or with their employees and customers, there are only interpretations and assumptions. The alignment is a critical requirement for setting the direction for strategy and keeping everyone on track.

Another important consideration is that “human centricity” is a culture that in some organizations will require adoption of new approaches to solving problems and getting work done. It requires investing time and resources upfront in developing deep understanding of and empathy for your customers and employees until you are able to define the challenge from their perspective. It requires collaboration and co-creating solutions with your customers, employees, and your external partners (e.g. suppliers). It requires “flattening” the decision-making process. It requires recruitment of diverse ideas and viewpoints during solution creation. It requires experimentation and testing, and yes, acceptance of failure. The success and effectiveness of a human-centered organization requires the leadership team’s readiness to accept new ways of operating and measuring success, progress, and outcomes.

The transformation to a human-centered organization requires earnest self-reflection and self-assessment within the leadership body in its readiness for leading and nurturing this new culture. Some of these approaches may require some stretching and some discomfort, but at the end they will result in accurate definition of the problem, solutions that address the actual needs of their beneficiaries and lower costs in investments due to rapid prototyping and testing.

2. The Employees

If the issue at hand is related to customer experience, most organizations engage the employees and functions that most obviously sit in the frontline of their organization’s interactions with their customer. They include functions and individuals such as the sales representatives and the online and offline customer support representatives. However, customer experience is a product of not just those frontline interactions. The organizations’ IT personnel that build and/or manage the website, the CRM, the fulfillment system, and so forth, the human resources personnel who recruit and hire the organization’s workers, the legislative affairs personnel who negotiate regulations with local and national governments, and many others, are also affecting the experience that the organization offers to its customers. In solving for customer related challenges, often these “behind the scene” functions are not engaged early on during the empathy and “solutioning” phases. This is a grave and often costly oversight.

The challenge of the human centered organization and the person/s that lead the creation and implementation of a human-centered solution are two-fold. First, they must ensure the solution includes the viewpoints of all those impacting the customer experience outcomes. Second, they must understand the motivations, the attitudes, the aspirations, and the barriers of those individuals who are impacting the customer experience (again, empathy), both in the frontline and behind the scene.

Your employee base is not a homogenous body. Each employee comes from a different background; each has a different set of values; each has his or her own reasons for getting up each day and coming to work; each gets joy from different things in their lives; each learns and communicates in his or her unique ways. As such, it should not be surprising if they see the priorities of the organization, the customer experience challenges, and how to attend to them within their own context.

In a human-centered organization, it is critical to develop an ethnographic understanding of the individuals employed by the organization such that behavior change can be inspired effectively. It is also important to identify and address any area of misalignment in goals and expectations, as it was done with the leadership team. The misalignments of goals and expectations may be between any combination of individuals, functions and leadership.

As mentioned before, the leadership of the organization will have to be comfortable with new approaches that the employees will have to adopt in order to serve the customers more effectively. For example, the leadership must be comfortable with the employees regularly investing some time in understanding the changing needs of their customers. This could mean a sales person shadows some of her customers for a day, and so, there will be a day of no sales for that rep. This could mean the customer support person is empowered to collaborate with the customer directly to identify the right solution to a problem for that customer, and so, the customer support rep will have to get off the script and experiment. This could mean the product engineer will invite the customers to ideate on the features of a new product, but some of those ideas may fail and that is just ok.

3. The Customers

The customers are those who will or are using your products and services for a price. They are the individuals that your organization serves (e.g. citizens that your government agency serves). They are the individuals that you compete for their attention (e.g., financial donors or volunteers of a non profit).

To address challenges like the examples listed in the beginning of this post, a human-centered organization must develop a deep psychographic understanding of its customers. The organization must engage its customers directly and invest time in getting to know them as individuals within a larger context than their current organization-customer relationship. For example, how do they make decisions, any decision? What gives them joy? What do they value in their relationships? What are the emotions they feel or felt in the course of an action or decision, and why? As mentioned earlier, majority of human decisions are made based on emotions, not logic. Therefore understanding what kind of events triggers those emotions is key to understanding the decision-making processes of your customers.

To develop an in depth understanding of its customers, the organization must extract from the customer actual stories as testaments to their values, actions, decision making process, not just hypotheticals or yes and no answers. The organization must observe and assess actual actions of the customer, and not just their words, by shadowing them or immersing in their experience (have you tried to complete a transaction on your organization’s website? On your phone?). Surveys and focus groups often do not get to the depth of this understanding and they often extract average behaviors that are attributed to large swaths of generic populations and demographics.

The human-centered organization engages the customer in solution creation. Solutions are co-created, prototyped and tested with customers to ensure accurate understanding of their need, the usability or effectiveness of the solution. The human-centered organization takes into account the diversity of its customers. In co-creation, prototyping and testing this diversity is properly represented.

In the next post we will address the role of the leadership in a human centered organization. Until then, we’d like to hear from you…..

When you create solutions to your organization’s challenges:

· Do you always find alignment among the members of your organization’s leadership, specifically as it relates to the goals and expectations of the outcomes? If yes, how do you know that? If no, what do you typically do to bring about alignment?

· How do you decide who in your organization should be engaged in solving organizational challenges? Why?

· How do you engage your customers when solving organizational challenges?

Banafsheh Ghassemi, CEO & Cofounder of Tangerine Lab BanafshehGhassemi@TangerineLab.com

We are a human experience design & innovation firm. We employ human centered design (HCD) in customer, employee and leadership strategy development.