Need for Human Centered Product Design​

Transformation, Product Management

Human-centered design is a design philosophy. It means starting with a good understanding of people and the needs that the design is intended to meet - Don Norman


We the people are sophisticated beings. Continuously improving through generations of learning transferred via hereditary evolution. Simply said, we are supercomputers on the prowl inbuilt with bundles of sensors, processors, storage, energy, downtime in order to navigate the world efficiently.


We are composed of physical and metaphysical elements in order to make comprehensive sense of the environment around us. Our physical faculty is used for kinesthetics, energy, storage and sensing while our metaphysical is used for learning, processing and decision making from the environment.


Leveraging both we process decisions by accumulating signals, regurgitating information, synthesizing sentiments, relating insights, abstracting concepts, interpreting opportunities, assessing threats, expressing thoughts to name a few. We are blessed with twin operating modes of conscious and unconscious in order to conserve energy. 


Within each of these modes, we can be driven by the impulse to consume or transact. Irrespective of our impulses, we respond to signals in selfish, altruistic and empathetic ways. selfishness, focuses exclusively on “what’s in it for me”. This drive is an extension of our survival instincts. altruism focuses purely on “what’s in it for others”. This drive is an extension of our caring nature. empathy focuses on “what’s in it for us”. A state of being that balances our extremes.


With the ability to switch elements, modes, impulses and ways we are an enigma to understand. As a people, we can never draw the line as to which of these ways is dominating our decisions, actions and behavior at any point in time. Further add our beliefs, preferences, values, characteristics, goals, motivations we are a cocktail of confusion for self and others. 


In fact, there are fields of study like anthropology and related specializations deal with detailed grasp of us humans. To understand our instincts, prejudice, predisposition and expectations is an important part of the scope. It is indeed true that some of these studies are practically applied in marketing functions to influence our subconscious mind in favor of brands.


With scientific studies noting that as much as 95% of all decisions are emotional, it is  important to note that this know how of people is mandatory to make things desirable, usable and compelling. First principle of product design is to evoke that deep feeling of resemblance which intrigues human emotions.


One of the salient features of our existence is our ability to anthropomorphize. An ability to manifest and visualize human like traits in shapes, forms, patterns etc. Coca cola bottle designed with feminine proportions to draw consumers attention with its curves continues to be iconic, a car grille well designed espouses a smile are few examples. 


Going beyond physical shapes and resemblance of expressions we are adept at reading emotions in inanimate objects. No wonder we have millions of gods and goddess blessing us, mother nature embracing and soothing us are few examples. Our necessity to relate with almost everything in human terms also extend to systems we build. 


So, it’s only natural for us designers and engineers to craft systems in our image and it is quite normal for consumers and users to expect things in their image. In physical objects, it is manifested through morphological resemblance between the human features and objects. In the case of intangibles like software emotional meaning can only be construed through visual,spatial, cognitive, interactive and engagement traits.


Designers have to first and foremost personify intangibles through cognitive principles. Psychology of colors (feelings), psychology of shapes (qualities), Gestalt Principles of Visual Perception (aesthetics), mental models (habits), Hick’s Law (simplicity), Psychology of persuasion (exclusivity, assurance), visceral reactions (attraction) to name a few.


When there is alignment of expectations, we have a match made in heaven. Potential for hyper growth becomes how well the message is crafted and distributed. Unfortunately, in most cases this mutual promise of quid pro quo benefits never materializes. We are left with bruised egos that serve no purpose.


The worst thing for any passionate team is to burn the midnight oil designing and building a new product, only to find lacklustre customer response due to usability challenges. It is not sufficient to have good intentions, it is required to have characteristics that elicits various stimuli that present emotional comprehension of what the product stands for.


Need for human centered design emanates from this necessity to build something contextually relevant to the user's task and environment by leveraging customers perceived subconscious associations.

People are notoriously bad at predicting what they will want. very good at telling us what they don’t want when they experience it - Sara Cowles


It’s no secret that the best experiences are unnoticeable. In fact, they are so magical that they ensure hiding of the complex engineering behind it. When simplicity meets utility we have a product that naturally grows on the customer. Pleasurable experiences delight the customer and make it memorable. Building a usable and useful product is only possible if designers are on the dart with respect to customer’s journey. Mission to empower users in pursuit of their goals is only possible if they are placed at the center of experiential design.


Customer journey is all the experiences the customers go through as they go about improving their lives. It might include interacting with your company, competitors, substitutes or anything that will help them feel better. Unfortunately, most businesses have reduced customer journeys to all touchpoints a potential customer has before, during, and after their purchase.


This shortsighted marketing and sales centric view of customer journey is the Achilles heel of even well intended product efforts. Everyone is cherry picking those aspects of the journey directly impacting their organization or department without exploring a holistic perspective of all influences in sufficient detail. Such fragmented grasp introduces siloed thinking leading to incongruent team objectives.


Journey maps benefit the organization in many ways. Process of creating a map necessitates a  conversation about the customer, it creates a shared perspective for the whole team and brings about an agreement as to how product under consideration can  improve customer experience.


Exploration of customer journey must happen at multiple levels. 


  1. Foremost is the understanding their situations, motivations, expectations, triggers, feelings 
  2. Followed by the grasp the different stakeholders involved (people and systems), channels available for them to interact, the jobs to be accomplished, obstacles in their path and overall inefficiencies of their landscape.  
  3. Last but not the least is the emotional downside caused by the pain and the potential upside they expect to gain by using the system.


Together they help form experience maps, journey maps and service maps. Idea of studying customer journey is simple. Study the “as is” from all perspectives in order to deliver a delightful “to be” so that we can cash in on the available opportunities. 


Unfortunately, it has been reduced to sloganeering around marketing, sales, service and success management.


According to Harvard professor Gerald Zaltman, both business buyers and consumers aren't as savvy as popular belief makes them out to be. While there are exceptions to the norm, most of them are fatigued by comparing competing brands and price points when evaluating a purchasing decision. In fact Zaltman found that they camouflage their thoughts, feelings and physical reactions  through contradictory verbal clues.


Why aren't consumers truthful about their thoughts and feelings? . Simply put they don’t trust us enough to be truthful. Some of the other reasons could be as follows.


  1. We are not articulating from their points of view in its entirety. 
  2. We are unable to resonate with their unconscious urges of pain relief and pleasure seeking. 
  3. We are enforcing an accelerated pace the customer is unprepared or unwilling to follow. 
  4. We are unable to synchronize their chatter across multiplying touchpoints to make sense of their intentions  
  5. We are unable to evolve and grow with the customer evolution.


Given the fact that emotion is what really drives the customers. Aligning teams with those emotions is essential to be people centric. Organizations in general either pay lip service or completely ignore unconscious emotional urges

People themselves are often unaware of their true needs, even unaware of the difficulties they are encountering. Getting the specification of the product is one of the most difficult parts of the design - Don Norman


As customers traverse along an exploratory path, they face up with countless moments of truth. Some of those experiences make them happy while others leave a longing for better. While you cannot improve all of their bad experiences, each one of them play a role. Being aware of those is as important as identifying the scope of experiences you can improve.


Cognizance is required of the fact that each experience irrespective of those outside your realm of control shapes customer opinions, determines choices, influences decisions, behavior and loyalty. Journey mapping creates a blueprint for customer experience transformation. We start with experience mapping followed by journey mapping followed by service mapping. Put together they contain the capacity to augment the customers life. 


  1. Experience map is business or product agnostic. A tool to study average human behavior. A mother of all other maps that gives an overall perspective what the experience can be like.


  1. Journey map includes business or product specific information. A tool to study different stakeholders involved in the business. Focuses on specific scenario a single stakeholder travels in getting a job done with an objective to unearth the pain points.


  1. Service map is a visualization of the business aspects of a stakeholder journey. A tool to study the overall activities required to pull off the job and the connections between each of them.  


Take for example, a case of tired frequent flyer in transit and missing his valuable in a previous flight. Made all the effort to get it through flight agents and gatekeepers. Security restrictions and protocol meant that he had to depend on flight staff and support to get their lost item back with a time lapse rather than immediately.


Experience Map imagines the overall travel journey in general including waiting lounges, onboarding, in flight experience, emergencies and lost items. Journey Map selects the case of lost items and focuses on a transit flyer scenario to explore the actions a traveler might take in getting the lost item back. Service Map focuses on the process and people that must be deployed in order to ensure the item is retrieved and returned to the traveler.


Imagine yourself as a holiday traveller and think about how you will visualize the experience. As a matter of fact, i would look at distinct aspects of the whole travel. Reaching the airport is an experience itself, passing through the boarding, inflight service, baggage handling, immigration, hotel accommodation, local food, places to visit and so on. 


Each of these chunks have to be accomplished unscathed for the overall holiday to be great. However, we can also enjoy portions of our holiday while disparaging other portions of it with bad experience. Even more, our expectations themselves are very aligned with the recent best experience we had in a similar category. 


For example, someone who had recently used an iPad might crib about a surface tab or other tabs. In another scenario, someone who had switched from android to iPhone might find it exceptional compared to the one who is apple maniac. In other words, we use anchors and past experience pools as references to set expectations and navigate the world around us effortlessly.   


Managing larger chunks of outcomes through smaller portions of time and effort. As an individual, We have a natural inclination to divide and conquer. Dissect each large venture into  manageable portions to process the way things unfolded, the things that went right, the things that what went wrong and how to fix accountability for the outcomes. 


While we individuals can have specific definitions and custom aspirations about an experience,  a business needs to explore the different possibilities so as to you collate and aggregate the kind of experience our segment of customers might aspire for. Even better would be to start with something that is flexible and personalizable  to make the customer feel special .


According to Peter Morville, a pioneer in the user experience, there are 7 factors namey Usefulness, Usability, Findability, Credibility, Desirability, Accessibility and Value that influence a user’s experience and in turn satisfaction.


For example, luxury goods are designed to amplify self-worth and prestige making it exceptional in desirability. Premium goods are designed to amplify convenience and pleasure seeking making it exceptional in usability. Each of these factors of experience can amplify emotions like excitement, adventure, glory, love, relationships, and desires.   


Customer experience encompasses every function of a company. Finance, research, advertising, packaging, product, service and success contribute to the overall emotional experience. In other words, products must sell a new lifestyle and root for emotional responses a consumer will achieve by using the product.


Unfortunately, In modern organizations, it is limited to being measured through customer satisfaction scores. While the objective to close the overall gap between expectations and subsequent experiences is real, the outcome of an analytical, siloed and ritualistic exercise is timid and useless.  


According to research conducted by the University of Washington and Colorado State University, companies delivering experiences based on articulated needs of the customers are fragile in the marketplace. They are found only to be reacting to customer feedback rather than anticipating needs through market orientation. In the process they are losing out on the identification of unmet needs that might open up blue oceans.


While organizational programs on experience and satisfaction are well intended, they are not travelling the extra mile to review the nuances in customer expectations and the resulting experience. Shift away from a reactive to proactive outlook is only possible with detailed customer journey maps.

We see our customers as invited guests to a party, and we are the hosts. It’s our job every day to make every important aspect of the customer experience a little bit better - Jeff Bezos


Good customer experience is about hyper relevance. Impressing upon customers a reassuring sense of being respected by delivering personalized, continuous, effortless, convenient, consistent and accelerated outcomes. Demonstrating that their feelings are heard and acknowledged by ensuring the delivery of meaningful experiences via humane technology. 


Accenture’s thought leadership article on hyper relevant customer experiences argues that great experiences are plausible when a business


  1. commits to meeting an individual customer’s need without hesitation.
  2. uses personal data to deliver exactly what customers need, exactly when they need it.
  3. enhances trust by serving their best interests and is there when they need it most.


In other words, a smart delivery of value by focusing on the specific customer being served. Building products based on situational needs and adapting in real-time to serve the evolving customer intent is the hallmark of personalized value. Designing distinct memorable moments for each customer with behavioral data is the driving force of experiential product thinking.


Delivering the right experiences via right products to the right person at the right time and place via the right channels is the holy grail of hyper relevance. Focusing on individual customer engagement patterns and habits through systematic studies before, during and after acquiring customers is necessary to offer tailored solutions that fly.


Established ideas of need groups and segments are challenged due to the emerging technology driven trend to study specific individuals. A paradigm shift in every function of business is underway to fulfill customer expectations in a personalized manner that can save customer physical and mental effort.


Helping customers overcome the roadblock and gridlock on their journey is the only way for businesses to deliver great experiences. Anticipating disruptions and empowering them overcome  stumbling blocks in their pursuit is only possible through mastery of their contexts.

Content is king, but context is God - Gary Vaynerchuk


There is a raging debate online about what SaaS business should focus on as they strategize an outreach. Some say it’s 4C’s of Customer, Context, Content and Collaboration. Some others say it’s 5C’s of Customer, Context, Content, Community and Conversation. Even more say it’s 6C’s Customer, Context, Content, Connection, Communication and Convenience.


Crux of SaaS outreach rests on a sound grasp of Customer, Context and Content. Influence of other factors vary depending on the interplay of 3C’s. Customers are influenced by great content and ruminate on decisions predicated on context. 


With need being the same, different situations elicit different decisions. Context is about a moment in time where an individual or a group interacts with their environment with a very specific need. Context brings together people, situations, aspirations, intent and decisions to deliver optimal results and delightful outcomes.  


Neuro Scientific Studies reveal that a decision to buy a product is made subconsciously based on a deeply empirical mental processing system that tactfully leverages ration and emotion to make and communicate decisions. In other words, context is about the study of all possible obvious and non obvious factors that a customer will apply to assimilate insights. It’s about grasping the transformation process of those insights into intuitive decisions.


Context is the bridge connecting the subconscious thoughts with the observable behavior. Study of context helps organizations resonate with audience and replicate decision making at market scale.


Study of context requires mastery of people. The things that stay constant and relative, subjective and the objective, the mask and the real, the rational and emotional, the explicit and implicit, the words and deeds.

Feedback is the breakfast of champions - Brian Halligan, CEO of Hubspot


Digital products benefits are explored in discovery, conceptualized in definition, constructed in development and distributed in delivery. Together, they form the comprehensive customer feedback  loops.


Establishment of these loops helps teams constantly stay on top of blatant customer feedback Ability to continuously deploy software and learn from it helps gain a stranglehold on latent customer needs. Integrating these feedback loops throughout the product and feature life cycle helps construct an objective process to build, measure and learn about real customer needs.


Unlike in the past, where it took years to iterate, acquire customers and deliver value. Products of today reach dramatic milestones in shorter time frames. Keeping pace simultaneously with constantly evolving needs and hyper growth is no small feet. 


Discovering effective solutions, delivering those efficiently thereby unearthing mutually beneficial value is the cornerstone of iterative product development. All the constructs of agile, lean, their different flavors and their interpretations all started with the single goal of accelerating this customer feedback loop. 


Unfortunately, they have lost track of their larger goals and devolved into mere execution enablers. Stress on selective terminologies and constructs like backlog, user stories, retrospectives have deviated product teams from their real objectives of customer centricity.


This inward focus coupled with the demands of various stakeholders have created a cocktail of confusion and muddled the water in terms of priorities. Inability to adjust to progressive customer needs is forcing companies to shut down and abandon digital product initiatives. 


High rate of product failures among startups is no exception. Swimming against the tide in murky waters is a luxury no one enjoys.

To design the best User Experience, pay attention to what users do, not what they say - Jakob Nielsen


Goal of every customer centric product team is to absolutely please their users. Delivering them whatever they want and whenever they want it. Desire to give them the best thing possible is indeed the best goal but taking it to the level of subservience will not result in an effective outcome in spite of their good intentions.


Most effective way to design products requires balance. Finding the sweet spot between Vision, Instinct, Market, Prospect, Want, Need, Science, Art, tangible, intangibles, technology, deployment, blueprints, experiments, tools, hacks,  utility, outcome etc. Lots of factors need to be considered and mixed in the right proportions. 


Underlying each of these factors lurks the aspiration of people who use and the ability of the people who create. Institutionalized integration of tangible and intangible feedback from both customers and company is the hallmark of optimal product design. To this end, effective product design begins and ends with people and their experiences.


Studies in social research help us connect the dots. Some say it’s situations, experiences and behavior that moulds the total personality of an individual. Some others say it’s cognition, feelings and behavior. Notwithstanding the scientific validity, they allude to the large scheme of interconnected reality between the visibles and invisibles.Not just one but trains of these combinations shape the drive, desire and action.


In spite of their theoretical nature, these interconnected attributes are essential to explain how one users expectations may vary from the other. In the b2b environments these factors amorph into necessity, ownership and accountability based on the roles an individual is hired for. Situations at work represented by expectations, motivations, objectives, capability, culture, emotions, tools, outcomes together lead to positive or negative experiences. 


Pain is a pseudonym for sustained negative experiences causing an emotional hurt while the problem is the sum of all issues that cause real world losses that is sustaining the pains. Different need groups and individuals face different pains, different levels of pains caused by different problems and different levels of problems.


Manifested by a lot of moving parts leading to very unique needs for different customers. Just imagine the permutations and combinations possible. Further add their constantly changing ery nature to the mix, eradicating pains and solving problems for a large group of customers in the enterprise is indeed very very difficult.


Hence, it is very important to gather inputs from those who matter the most. early adopters, high expectation customers, power users etc are required to share their thoughts via decision maker surveys, open-ended surveys, embedded surveys in marketing calls, phone interviews, customer service calls etc to name a few.


All these surveys can potentially reveal customer perceptions based on their past experiences with or without a product being considered. Sometimes, the customers may go on to articulate the exact solution they need to overcome bad experiences. Now wonder then that solutions offering customization capability outsell those that don’t have. 


Depending purely on customer word to craft or improve a solution is appropriate for a services vendor. Most companies procuring Commercial Off the shelf products (COTS) struggle with hyper generic functionalities and features forcing them to spend billions to achieve integration and interoperability.


Achieving true collaboration they aspire for then depends on a one to one relationship between the vendor and customer. In this scenario, understanding specific process of the customer and subserving them is key to their survival and growth. Unlike services driven products, pureplay products vendors need to be masters of the domain, process to drive thought leadership and deliver industrial efficiency. 


Achieving this goal requires a sophisticated prioritization methodology that can drill down and deliver on those things that cause the greatest friction logically and emotionally. Observing customers in their environments with their struggles and inhibitions adds a layer of unprecedented insights to the verbal clues of customers.


With the advancements in stability, reliability, security of the internet, the opportunity to build truly personalized products for enterprise is finally here. Materializing that opportunity is only possible when creators can listen to the spoken word and the unspoken signals.

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