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Using Human-Centric Design to Solve Business Challenges

Transformative change with enterprise technology requires putting people at the start, and heart, of a design process.

Will Snow
Will Snow
Nov 13, 2019 · 7 min read

Imagine the scene: you unveil your latest enterprise technology to your users, happily thinking they will love it and your business challenges have been solved.

But here’s what really happens: They take one look at it, roll their eyes and mutter, “Oh great, yet another IT change that still doesn’t work the way we need it to.”

They don’t love it — quite the opposite. And your business challenge? Far from solved.

Every business challenge is different. Sure, a few can be addressed with a tweak here, an addition there. But then there are the big challenges — the ones that, the more you explore them, make you realize that the answers lie in significantly transforming your business.

When transformation is the desired outcome, how can you be sure that your ultimate output of revamped enterprise tech will actually achieve anything? How do you get from here to there, to solve that challenge?

Which aspects of the issue should you tackle first? What do the possible solutions actually look like? And exactly how — and how quickly — could you implement each one, while still running your business?

Over the years, we at Salesforce have seen our customers, big and small, through multiple challenges — big, small, and truly transformative. And we’ve found that those that succeed have one thing in common: They’re centered around the needs of customers and employees. To put it another way, they achieve transformative outcomes through the lens of human-centric design.

As Sam Walton put it, “There is only one boss. The customer.”

For today’s digital experiences, we see the user as our ultimate boss. So we put them at the start, and heart, of our entire process. We check our assumptions about them early and often. Thanks to the speed of creating digital experiences, we can test our work early and often. And because we’re focused on delivering value for people, we can learn and adapt to ensure that our output of “yet another IT system” will actually deliver the outcome of “oh whoah — I love it!

This is designing for transformation in a human-centric way.

At the core of human-centric design is a five-step process that puts people at the center of any transformation initiative:

  1. Start with people in a variety of roles.
  2. Empathize with each role’s needs and obstacles.
  3. Solve for these with capabilities and a roadmap.
  4. Demonstrate specific outputs with examples.
  5. Test your examples and compare the outcome with your expected findings. Do you need to adjust how you’re solving the business challenge at hand?
To ensure adoption, start with people. Empathise,, map solutions, demo the most valuable, test it until adoption is certain.
To ensure adoption, start with people. Empathise,, map solutions, demo the most valuable, test it until adoption is certain.
Five steps in the validated approach to transformation.

To evaluate the success of a transformation, the ultimate outcome is its effects on the people within the organization. If your people don’t — or can’t — respond by working in new ways, your attempt at transformation has failed.

So how do you get your people on board? The answer is at once simple to state and difficult to implement: Start with people.

That sounds great — but once you’ve committed to putting people first, where do you go from there? Here’s an overview:

  • First, get executive buy-in for people-first design. This gives you access to your target audience.
  • Your target audience: Who are they? Which roles do they occupy?
  • Once you’ve defined your audience, start by interviewing and shadowing the relevant people.
  • You’ll uncover three types of insights: tasks, pains, and gains. Use these to segment your audience, generating a handful of target personas, each in a different role.
  • You can go deeper using tools such as empathy maps, but the primary purpose here is to get a rounded understanding of people, grounded in empathy.

Empathy means going beyond logical understanding to create an emotional connection with the need for change. How do you know when you truly empathize with your target personas? You feel what they feel. You predict their answers. You have deep insight into their working lives. And this understanding galvanizes you to improve their daily struggles with spreadsheets, systems, and siloes.

Once you’re empathizing with people’s needs, you can figure out what’s blocking each of your target personas from achieving their goals — and then sort these obstacles into distinct groups such as delays, stoppers, workarounds, repetitions, frustrations, and social pains too.

This isn’t an easy task, but it’s an essential one. Do it right, and you avoid wasting time and effort on addressing the wrong problems or, just as bad, identifying real problems but generating solutions that don’t solve them for your target audience.

Now you know what outcomes your transformation really needs to achieve if it’s going to solve people’s problems and help them achieve their needs. So how to achieve them? Your tools: capabilities and an initial roadmap of what to build first.

Prioritization Matrix: x axis: how feasible? y axis: how valuable? Plot Capabilities (rated for desirability).
Prioritization Matrix: x axis: how feasible? y axis: how valuable? Plot Capabilities (rated for desirability).
How to force compromise and a realistic starting point for what could be built.

Capabilities are high level ‘things you can do’, for example, “task tracking”. In terms of functionality, “task tracking” could be realized in many different ways, but for now, you want to don’t want to get into specific solutions.

At this point, you’ll want to bring in your IT department to assess the technical feasibility of these capabilities, typically with regard to integration with legacy systems.

Next, business and technology must work together to prioritize capabilities according to user value, business needs, and technical feasibility.

This requires at least some level of compromise, in which business and IT plot possible capabilities on a three-dimensional map delineating business value, technical feasibility, and user need.

Prioritization Matrix: Completed. Highly desirable capabilities in the top right quadrant should now be demo’d for testing.
Prioritization Matrix: Completed. Highly desirable capabilities in the top right quadrant should now be demo’d for testing.
Plotting capabilities in three dimensions to create a roadmap that serves all stakeholders.

Be strict here, and the top right quadrant’s highly desired capabilities are where you begin with your roadmap for transformation.

All of this sounds great in theory — but what’s the impact on the ground? What does it mean for the people at the heart of the process? What, in essence, will it look like inside the organization?

To answer these questions, the next step is to use visualization tools, such as user journeys and design prototypes, to illustrate example outputs that you currently expect will achieve your transformative outcome. This is where the previous capabilities now do turn into specific functionalities and experiences.

Think of visualization as an x-ray of value. When you make things visible, there’s little space for misinterpretation, forgotten data sources, or general assumptions. Design prototypes act as a universal language of this is what it will look like — a tool to draw people together and unite them around a tangible vision.

These prototypes make it clear what data you need to fill in the fields, what systems must be integrated, what the requirements are for collaboration, and what business processes will be required to manage this new way of working.

You’ve considered the people your transformation will affect, and you’ve empathized with them. You’ve assessed your capabilities and developed a roadmap. And you’ve used design tools to tie your goals to tangible examples. But these examples are only outputs with the expectation of an outcome. You turn expectations into knowledge by testing what you have.

When you test your examples, make sure you match them up with the right people — those you’ve identified in Step One. Get them using the prototypes, and pay close attention to what they do. It’s only through such intensive user testing that you can make sure that your examples are actually solving the problems they’re supposed to — and achieving the transformative outcomes you’ve identified.

Next, share readouts of in-depth technical architecture, business guidance, and roadmaps with the wider business. Does anyone spot a technology you’ve missed? Does the project inspire buy-in for the business vision, or are people still not convinced? If not, why not?

This step is all about iteration. Spend as much time as you need on low-cost, low-risk iterations of examples until your tests come back with positive results — until, say, your users can work more quickly, in a way that makes sense, and are enjoying the process as they do.

And that’s the definition of the greatest test result of all: Understanding what a successful transformation looks like, validating that understanding, knowing how to achieve it — and then making it happen for the people it affects most.

It’s not easy, but it is possible. To create truly transformative change, start with people, empathize with their needs and challenges, agree on a roadmap for solving them, use design tools to demonstrate examples of future outputs, and test those examples to ensure they’re achieving your expected outcome so that you know people will adopt your vision.

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Thank you to… 🙌

Many thanks to my Salesforce Ohana from the engagements where these concepts were practiced. Huge thanks to Simone Gelfand for pushing me to do this blog post, to Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet for her amazing editing, and to Isabelle Hüther for helping with the illustrations.

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