Following the fantastic interview we had with Jaime Derringer few days ago about the very same role of Design and new trends coming up these – strange – days, we host today another truly amazing girl: Whitney Hess.
We had the change to meet with Whitney at the Frontiers of Interaction conference in 2011 and listen to her talk. It was greatly inspiring, and convinced me even more of the power of confidence and of the necessity to speak out and express yourself every day. That’s exactly the very same motivation the team here created superthemes for: promoting your work with an elegant portfolio wordpress theme that let’s you focus on the content, on speaking out what you’ve inside.
Whitney is a user experience consultant in New York City, running is own independent consulting business, working with a wide array of different companies, especially startups.
Whitney especially helps these small, getting started businesses, to figure out who their target audiences are, what those people need and what problems they are facing; to ensure that these companies don’t waste time solving their own problems and instead are creating something that will truly improve the life or the work of their customers.
Her work is much about techniques to better empathize with customers’ needs and to prioritize the product features that will have the highest impact for their business and for their customers.
Read this amazing interview, and find some time to participate to our first community survey.
[superthemes] Ciao Whitney! We loved a quote on you blog that says: “My work isn’t done until every business puts their customer to center”.
A point that is worth to raise though, is that the market now is really melting with society: we have for example crowdfunding platforms and creation is becoming something more cooperative. What happens when the customers are not just waiting there for you to solve their problem, but they actually cooperate to create something to solve their problem by themselves, or at least they conspirate in a direct way with designers and creators?
What are the changes that you are seeing in this process of customer-driven development?
[Whitney Hess] Well, I think you touched on something interesting: it seems like there is a movement towards a much more cooperative customer base than we’ve seen in recent years. I think the way that industry was developing until maybe 5-10 years ago was that essentially what the company made, customers bought. And it was very unidirectional conversation. There was very little input back from the customer to the business. And as businesses grew and as corporate America developed into something where big was considered to be good and bigger was better, the staff of these companies became all the more disconnected from the people that they were trying to serve. And it’s something you see all the time.
When a company is just starting out, they may have been located in a store front. I think of it as a restaurant, for instance. The people who come in everyday help to shape what that restaurant becomes, because the owner stands inside the restaurant, greets everyone who comes, gets to know his customers and changes the menu, and the atmosphere based on what his customers want and need, and the feedback that they express to him. And then, once that restaurant becomes successful, then they start to create a second location. And when there is a second location already, the owner is not going to be capable of being as involved with the customer experience because he can’t be in two places at once. He can only be in each location some of the time.
Then, if there’s a third location, a fourth location, a fifth location, not only can he not be in multiple places at the same time, but in order to manage that growth, he has to hire levels of management underneath him and slowly but surely he becomes over more separated from the people that he is trying to serve. Eventually, he sits in a corner office in a high-rise office building somewhere that isn’t even in the same city as the restaurant, and he is so busy running the business from a financial perspective, that the service that they provide no longer becomes a part of his daily concern. He may not even leave his office and walk into a restaurant anymore. Chances are that as the business has grown, the quality of the service has diminished and it has become a restaurant that he wouldn’t even eat at with his own family.
That is, I think, an analogy for what has happened with a lot of big corporations in multiple industries. And I feel that we are finally starting to move away from that because we realize that we as consumers have become so disengaged with the businesses that are creating the thing that we spend time doing, that we purchase, that we allow to enter to our worlds, and we realize that it isn’t fulfilling our needs anymore: it’s feeling too disconnected, too alienating. Instead, I feel that the pendulum is swinging in the opposite direction now, where we are getting back to wanting to have a sense of local community; wanting to support our local business; wanting to eat food that was grown and made locally; wanting to engage with local proprietors.
I’m finding that the same is true with the online community. That we want to support people who want to support us, and we want to be tightly engaged, and we’re starting to recognize that if we want high quality service, we need to be highly engaged in the process by which that service is designed for us. And so in some cases, that means people are becoming inventors again. They’re starting to build their own products, and build their own businesses, to fulfill upon the needs, their own needs that they’re realizing, that other bigger businesses aren’t able to fulfill upon, and that they’re not able to engage with in order to help them better meet their needs. And so we become this community of creators because we haven’t had the chance to really improve the experiences that surround us every day.
I’m starting to see that, even for those of us who aren’t inclined to create things for ourselves, are becoming much more open and much more engaged. When it comes to being a part of the design process, where they have an understanding of why it is you want to reach out to them, why do you want to talk to them about how to make the product better for them, they participate.
They’re willing to give their time to tell you how the product isn’t meeting their needs or to tell you about their life or the way in which this product is, where it lives in their life, because they understand, and they’re understanding more and more. I think we’re really starting to see a much higher engagement between consumers and business. And I think it’s a phenomenal thing. And our larger community as a whole is going to prosper as a result.
[superthemes] Since these means of creation are getting much more democratic, and much more cooperatively owned is very common to see entrepreneurial designer these days.
Designers have the vision to, let’s say, coordinate communities, and these overall research for meaning, for more meaningful products and services. So what’s the role right now in this new landscape for a designer?
[Whitney Hess] So, I think that there is a key change that’s happening. And it is moving from a world in which businesses are competitive with other businesses to a world where businesses are cooperative with one another. And I think that as a result designers have to recognize that their mission is no longer to be the best skilled. They don’t have to be the most excellent designer, objectively speaking, but rather being the best at integrating their product into the larger ecosystem of products and services that exist in that space.
And it’s recognizing the specific need that isn’t being fulfilled by the so called competitors and optimizing the product to integrate well with other partner products. Instead of everything being a turf war and saying, “We have to own this whole space. We have to be the market leader.” Instead to say, “How can what we create best fit into the landscape of products and services that our customers are already using and that is okay if they keep using?”
Let’s take Instagram. Instagram did something that many, many other apps were already doing. This was not a novel idea to be able to take a photo, apply some filters to it so it looks like you’re a phenomenal photographer and share that photo with your friends. Now, of the mistake that most of those other services made was that they were trying to be the destination for the sharing of those photos, so that they could contain and own the community of photo sharers.
What Instagram did was it said, “We are a tool. We are a tool for you to use and we want you to be the tool that you use in the moment that you see something interesting. But we don’t expect that we will be the ultimate destination for all things interesting. We recognize that you already are interacting with the community of your peers in Facebook and in Twitter. And so, we are going to make it dead simple for you to share these photos in the places that you’re already playing. You can take our tool into your sandbox.”They made it about being an add-on, about being collaborative, not about trying to steal away market share. And what they did as a result was create a tool that became a better photo sharing tool than Facebook’s own, making it a very obvious acquisition for Facebook.
Being a designer today means having a very holistic view of what that ecosystem is, what sandbox your customers are playing in and which sandboxes you can do better. It means being much more strategic than it does implementing best practices and knowing where to push pencils around, so that you can make the most objectively beautiful piece of art. It’s no longer about just being excellent in that way and just being skillful and a craftsman. It has to do with really being an anthropologist as well.
[superthemes] As a last point, I would like to ask you to explain our community why they should be curious for what is outside and engage with the outside in research for meaning, communities and interactions.
[Whitney Hess] Well, I may have a kind of unorthodox view on this. At the end of the day, all of this stuff that we do, all the stuff that we build, none of it really matters. We don’t know why we’re here on this planet. But what ultimately leads to a fulfilling life is building relationships and sharing yourself with other people.
Getting to know yourself better by getting to know other people better. And opening your eyes to the way in which people do things around the world, in different cultures, in different perspectives, in different opinions, and challenging the way that you’ve done things in an effort to ultimately get to know who you really are.
At the end of the day, I think that’s why it’s important that we not stay chained to our desks, and having our heads in our computers, acting as though the most important thing in the world is delivering these products, because they’re not. The reason the product exists, the reason that the companies exist, the reason that the industry exists is so that people can help each other better. Businesses become obsessed with making money – and that’s fine, that’s what we value in today’s society – but is thould be because when you’re able to stay in business, and continue to serve your customer: it really is about service. It’s about providing things to a person that they cannot provide to themselves without you.
Engaging with the community, getting out of the little box that you put yourself in, or that your manager puts you in, more often than not, recognizing that I am a human, you’re a human, the next person is a human, and that if we spend the time to learn what we are each doing, how we’re approaching the work, what it means personally to all of us, why we do it in the first place, we’re going to learn a lot more about ourselves, and it’s going to give us, personally, more meaning in everything that we do, in everything that we create.
If you yourself cannot empathize with the other people in your organization. If you cannot empathize with other designers in the community, if you cannot engage and develop strong personal relationships with other people as a human, you’re not going to be able to effectively design anything for the people that your company serves. So all of it, every last part of it, is ultimately the exercise that we all need to be the most effective designers that we can be. And being an effective designer, where you see that your work actually has impact, and it changes someone’s life, that helps you to be a happy and fulfilled person, and that’s really the only reason to do any of this.
If the work that you’re doing isn’t making you personally fulfilled, you’ve got to get out of there. You have to run, run, run, run, because life is way too short to waste a single moment doing something that you don’t love. And a lot of people who are stuck in the four walls of their office don’t realize just how hot the market is right now, just how burning the need is for people like us. So they fear that if they were to leave, they wouldn’t be able to find something else. And the only reason that they have that fear, and the only reason that they may go awhile without finding other gigs is because they haven’t truly been engaging with the community. And they haven’t really been opening their hearts and their minds to all of the things that are going on around us. There’s so much energy.
All you have to do is open yourself to it and you become a part of that.