the felt pixel, Usability, UX

A decade in “the belly of the beast”


How a product failure inspired empathy with stakeholders and the customer

It was my first day at a new job, and it became the pivotal turning point in my career. After running my own design studio for 8 years, I had reentered the corporate world in order to gain an “inside” perspective. That particular day was the official launch of a new learning platform for a specific discipline at our annual sales meeting; my new job entailed managing the digital strategy for this product, including budget, content production, and course delivery through external vendors. The very moment the product demo was to take place in front of hundreds of sales people and executives, the software “ate itself” in a recursive loop, and all of the courses were magically deleted. At least, that is how the vendor explained the epic failure to me.

Over the course of the next 3 months, I spent countless hours in triage mode, supporting instructors and students whom had difficulty using the product. Students were unable to sign into their course and complete homework; their grades were not being recorded accurately; and the instructors’ daily task of creating assignments was made more tedious by an undiscoverable “save” button. I documented all of my conversations, and surveyed the instructors to better understand their collective experience. The response was overwhelming: they were angered by the class time they lost supporting the platform, and they feared lawsuits from students who didn’t trust the accuracy of their grades. The majority were not planning to renew their adoption the following semester.

Through this nightmare, I became an advocate for the customer experience, and learned how to translate their needs to executive management. Data in hand, I consulted with management on a plan to change direction quickly. We renewed a partnership with another vendor that was well known and trusted in the market. Together, we customized a solution that was tested with customers within months, and delivered to market the following the semester.

I quickly learned that the “first customer” is the sales team (thank you, Clark), and that the customer must clearly understand the value of the product, while stakeholders need to trust that the value will actually be delivered. I became a champion of user experience design in my company, changing the conversation from what features we are delivering to what problems are we solving and for whom.

“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
—Steve Jobs

In the last ten years, I’ve journeyed through many corporate acquisitions, mergers and IPOs, learned how business cycles and budgeting works, navigated through internal processes and culture to better understand how decisions get made and products are brought to market. Now, I’m returning to client work to leverage my strategic design experience more widely.

Alan Cooper mentioned in a recent podcast that the most valuable asset a design consultant brings to a client is an independent, “outsider” perspective. They can articulate a product’s value more clearly from the customers’ point of view, and “speak truth to power” in a way that in-house designers are not often heard. He referenced the metaphor of “being in the belly of the beast,” which conjured up a dark, inward-focused environment full of danger and uncertainty.

In my experience, the cultural biases of an organization can make it difficult to see products holistically, along with the changes needed to improve them. Sunk costs, technical constraints and organizational structures can cloud the art of the possible. A customer-centered approach towards research, ideation and prototyping can bring new ideas to the table, mitigate risks and save time in development. My passion is to bring these customer insights to the design of intuitive, and highly usable products; — worthy cause for a designer that has just escaped the jaws of a whale.

Image credit: Biodiversity Heritage Library via Flickr