Once I worked in a company trying to sell them on being more user centred. And I failed. But I didn’t understand why until years later. Any experienced professional, who’s worked long enough in an industry, intuitively knows how to spin things. I was not experienced then.
There were three things that contributed to that: my lack of knowledge, there was no support from management and the company culture wasn’t there yet.
Lack of knowledge
I didn’t know how to justify the value of putting people (the users) at the centre. I haven’t spent enough time to internalise that. I haven’t had enough experience to have seen the impact in action. And I haven’t had anyone to shadow, from whom I can learn. So I failed by not knowing how to sell the idea, because I actually didn’t know the value, not just yet.
In a positive example, I’ve seen experienced professionals being able to explain with calm, tact and examples how user-centred design can help the company. Because they’ve seen it with their eyes, they know it works and can now help others understand.
No support from someone in management
Knowledge is good, but sometimes is not enough. Sometimes the difference is made by having a supporter or more. Preferably a senior manager, someone who can advocate for an idea. In my case, I didn’t have anyone to support the shift from copying competitors or just doing the first dumb idea that comes to mind. This of course only weakened the shift to talk with people more. I did however do research undercover, which helped me being more confident. But it didn’t scale well.
At the opposite end, I’ve seen organisations where a person in management understood the value of an idea, or they were convinced by an experienced person to support a specific direction. And the idea caught on and became a thing.
Company culture wasn’t there
The culture of a company can be a powerful thing. It can overrule management. No single manager can yield culture, because culture is a set of shared habits living inside each employee of a company. It’s like an imperfect human blockchain, there’s no centre of command.
And so in my case, the people I was working with weren’t used to talk with customers, that scared them. And I understood why in a meeting I had when one of the employees of a company completely challenged my design thinking approach, telling me that I should go do some designs and then come back with something I can present. My manager supported me in that case, but my colleagues and the customer didn’t join the band wagon. I could say that they didn’t get it, but I could also say that I didn’t manage to convince them.
In more fortunate situations, having worked in places where design thinking was normal (not new), I could see how that just worked. One of these places is at Contentful, where this was set in place by experienced people, it is supported by managers and it is part of the culture. And I can now observe the effects, the benefits, the impact it has. I can help others understand the value of putting users first when it matters.
These were all important lessons that taught me many things about how a big initiative can fail inside a company. I’ve learned in time to anticipate and react better to situations in which an idea is not well received.
And this can happen to anyone at any level in a company, member of a small team or chief of something important, especially when you do something for the first time.