Illustration by Jacob Zinman-Jeanes

Why do we struggle to talk to our users?

User-centricity has become a bit of a buzzword lately, and for good reason.

Organisations are beginning to understand that to stay relevant in this fast-paced, hyper-connected world, they have to gain a deep knowledge of their audience.

Service designers have also become better at talking business and building a case for customer-centricity. It’s a major competitive advantage.

Unfortunately there is still an immense gap between a company’s perception of the user experience and the real user experience. Many organisations believe they are being user-centric when in reality they’re struggling to talk to their users.

The perception gap

More often than not, organisations are not built to be user-centric. Although some have begun to hire user experience and service design teams, it’s not enough. User-centricity needs to be ingrained in the whole organisation. Top down and outside in.

Unless you’re a start-up, becoming a truly user-centric organisation won’t happen overnight.

To fully understand the power of service design and other user-centric approaches, you need to experience it. And the best way to experience it is to stand up from your desk, leave the office, meet the people who are using your products and services and spend some time with them.

Did you leave your desk yet? Didn’t think so.

Why is it so difficult?

What are the barriers that make it hard for us to step outside, talk to real users and get their valuable feedback?

We’re used to being an expert

Most of the barriers are related to the way we’ve always done business. We’re used to being the expert. We think we know better. We have so many years or decades worth of experience under our belts, that we assume we know the market better than anyone.

You might be the expert of the business you are in but you are not an expert of your user’s experience. Your user is.

We want to be prepared

We’re not used to delivering things early and incomplete. Our organisations are built to deliver products that never see daylight until they’re pitch perfect.

Pitch perfect in whose opinion? If you don’t test your product early and often you might have some expensive mistakes to correct..

Failing is not part of our culture

When someone thinks our ideas won’t work, it doesn’t feel good. Especially if that someone is our own client on whom our organisation’s success depends.

You can’t innovate if you’re playing it safe. Your competition will outplay you.

We feel uncomfortable being too close to our users

In the eyes of our customer, we like to remain the confident expert who knows best. What will they think when we appear to them with a solution that doesn’t work? What if they tell us they’re not happy with the service we provide? And to our face?

If you’ve ever had a good heart-to-heart conversation with someone, I bet you felt much better afterward. This is how your customer will feel after you take the time to ask their opinion. They’ll really appreciate it.

We don’t know where to start

Sometimes we just don’t know how to talk to our users. We might never have done it before or think it’s complicated and expensive. At other times we’ve done market research and it’s been expensive or it hasn’t shown us an obvious way forward.

Not every type of research is equal. There are simple and cheap ways to include techniques in your day-to-day business that generate feedback loops you can draw from.

Stepping out of your comfort zone

These barriers are nothing new. They’re human. They’re so common that they’re present in even the most user-centric organisations. In fact, we at Thick struggle with these sometimes ourselves.

Stepping out of your comfort zone is never going to be easy. But you don’t have a choice. It’s actually as simple as that — you need your customers more than they need you.


Written by Liisa Vurma, Service Design Director at Thick.

Read more essays from the Thick team.