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User Experience is Not Enough

I’ve been a user experience designer for the entirety of my career. And in the decade I’ve spent doing this work, I have discovered that there is only one universal truth about how to design an extraordinary user experience: you must design an extraordinary company first.

A group of individuals with a shared goal (in other words, a business) who do not equally and universally value one another simply cannot equally and universally value their customers, and therefore are in no position to create and support a product that will have a deep impact on people’s lives.

A great product experience can only be crafted in an environment that encourages collaboration, iteration, and risk. Working in unison, having patience and long-term vision, and being willing to fail are key factors to success.

What ultimately allows for these positive attitudes to exist and thrive in any organization is a culture of empathy. Empathy is defined as the ability to identify with another person’s experiences, even if you have never directly experienced them yourself. Imagining the world from another’s perspective, recognizing how it differs from your perspective, and demonstrating that you understand and value those differences is what it means to be empathic. This is not simply the ability to feel compassion for another person’s state of being (sympathy), but rather to muster a vicarious feeling of that state. To feel what another feels.

As experience designers, we focus much of our efforts on developing organizational empathy for our users, but we neglect to facilitate the same prosocial behavior on our own home turf. We must remember that creating effective user experiences requires not just an understanding of human-computer interaction, but more importantly of human-human interaction. And without great human-human interaction present within the organization, how can we possibly foster great human-human interaction between our colleagues and our customers?

Designing products is no longer enough for me. I want to design companies. I’m tired of silos and turf wars and egocentricity. It’s helping no one, and it needs to stop.

They say you can’t truly love another before you learn to love yourself. Organizations are no different. If we don’t love and respect and admire the people we work with every day, we can’t collectively give our customers the love they deserve. Love is a verb.

I want to use the same skills that I’ve honed crafting digital interactions and put them to use in crafting interpersonal ones. In fact, I’ve become obsessed with the thought. Figuring out how to do this work consumes my every waking moment and many of my sleeping ones, too.

Whatever I discover along the way, I will be sharing it with you here. And if you choose to join me in putting this philosophy into practice in your own organizations, I’d love to hear what you find.

Now let’s go change the face of business forever.

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  • http://www.bizosys.com srid har

    Very true. Organizations have always been focused on ‘Gain empathy’ – carrot and stick or powerful sponsors in the picture. I guess you are hinting at ‘Earn empathy’ instead. And that as designers, that’s where we beat ‘Sponsors.’

  • Tim Meaney

    Great post. I went through the exact same transition, but never phrased it as well as “Designing products is no longer enough for me. I want to design companies.”

  • http://www.rickcusick.com Rick Cusick

    Whitney –

    I couldn’t agree more, and I’m looking forward to seeing your thoughts on this topic as you dig deeper. Your discussion of ‘value’ with our group at Reading Plus, even just within the context of User Experience, brought this topic to the forefront of our product design sessions – i.e. the relationship between a healthy company and transformative products.

  • http://Www.myintuition.ca Sorin stefan

    Thank you Whitney,
    You know what? Your endeavour might have roots not in philosophy but in psychology.  In a way, the Jungian analysts are saying the same things you’re striving for too:

    W: “They say you can’t truly love another before you learn to love yourself. ”

    I think “They” might be this guy ;)

    Carl Jung: 
    The Individuation process brings up the true personality of a person, it makes him an Individual. Individuation generally has a profound healing effect on the person. (Jung, 1962, p. 433).
    People become harmonious, calm, mature and responsible. They feel and act like parents to the rest of humanity. They protect and promote the ideals of life, freedom and justice. They have amassed knowledge and have a deep understanding about human nature and the universe.  Therefore it is relatively easy for them to psychologically analyze and even cure other people.

    Here’s a book I recommend and highly praise from an amazing Jungian analyst with a chapter on “Eros in Organizations”

    Eden Project: In Search of the Magical Other – James Hollis

    Thank you for this post, as an UX-er I’ve been part of organizations/companies too where they needed this kind of help but I failed miserably in giving it :)

    I still am part of one who still needs a lot of help but this time I’m listening first …. both myself and the company.

    all the best,

  • Mark Eberman

    If you haven’t already, talk to Matt Milan at Normative. Designing a better design business is the whole reason Normative exists.

    And I agree 100% that a bad company is the number 1 impediment to good design. My term for it is “UX begins at home” in that we should be creating good experiences for those within the company as well as our clients.

  • http://jaredcomis.com Jared Comis

    Really like your comments on creating a culture of empathy internally. You would think this sort of reasoning would be a given but it just doesn’t seem to be. So often empathy is tacked on to core values or similar but never practiced reflexively. Great post.

  • Matthijs Mali

    While recently reading about Customer Experience instead of User Experience, this certainly takes it to a whole new level. Customer or User Experience only takes in one end. Redesigning a business or organization is most certainly the other end. I totally agree with your vision that the business or organization itself should reflect the way they aspire to communicate with the customers or users.

  • http://www.byandyparker.com Andy Parker

    I cannot agree more right from the get go.

    I’ve worked on so many projects where the client has come in with the usual statements; we want user centred design, focus on the user, user user user user. Then when you show them how that looks and works (well I’d like to add) they balk and start back tracking replacing it with feedback relating to their often dreadful business processes and poor decisions that resulted in them hiring you in the first place.

  • Rob Epstein

    Really like your post. You put it so clearly.
    This is not just business – it’s people.

    Imagine how much good can come out of this!

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  • Jamie

    Yes! Yes! Yes!
    I struggle with these same concepts almost every project. It feels so good to read this post! It does feel like a natural progression, doesn’t it? The desire for a good “user experience” can be applied to EVERY thing and EVERY interaction – be it a digital or physical product, or another person. See the world through that lens, and you’re never able to turn back.

  • http://betterbio.org Khadijah M. Britton

    We need to talk. We are SO on the same page, and your timing could not be more perfect. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for this post. -Khadijah, aka @KMBTweets. :)

  • Yihsiu Chen

    I love your comment. This is why I was more curious about the kind of company Apple is than about the Apple products themselves. I believe broken experience tells a lot about the organizations behind the design.

  • http://unraveled.com Joshua Kaufman

    Beautiful post, Whitney. I wish you the best in your new adventure!

  • http://theresaanna.com theresaanna

    I seriously want to embark on this with you. I keep joking that I could retire if I’d write a book on how NOT to manage creative teams. This post is ridiculously timely for me as I’ve just been pushed out of my job for demanding of management what was promised to the team I was on, which was a team that was supposed to re-envision and rebuild the product with a focus on user experience. Of course, egos and politics as usual made that impossible for me and I’d say its improbable for those still on the team.

    I believe that the days of callousness that we find synonymous with capitalism and the starched values of the past couple of generations are coming to an end. Unfortunately, at least in the development world, the answer so far has been adoption of methodologies that don’t address underlying issues, but rather exacerbate the tendency for those managing to give lip service to those who are managed. This comes by way of very nice sounding practices that make the first fatal mistake of being retrofitted to existing outdated structures and practices.

    I heard something very, very sad today from someone I admire. They said that the last time that someone can be an authentic individual is between the ages of four and six. It makes me sick to think about the creativity and passion that is dissipating into the ether, not to mention the impact on personal lives. I’m dying to find a way to convince people to refuse to resign themselves to living with stultifying organizational norms. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard recently that there are “personality issues/egos everywhere you go”. I refuse to take it as a given.

    So… yeah. I think this is fantastic.

  • Lawrence Lipkin

    Time to be C-Level!

  • http://www.rightbrainrebellion.com Brian Pinkney

    Great thoughts. It is nice to see that there are others thinking the same things out there.

    The majority of business teams in this day and age are still based on old thinking of how we used to do business.

    It is interesting to look back how the industrial revolution has molded how we do business and the shaping and interaction of teams ultimately for mass production and profit instead of quality, design and innovation.

    Capitalism is still king although people in our generation know more and expect more in terms of quality and experience than ever before.

    As the world changes it thoughts and views on big business I think that business itself will realize and change as well.

    Times are a changin’ though and happy to be a part of it.

  • https://twitter.com/johntmohr John Mohr

    This is a brilliant article, thanks so much for making this statement.

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  • http://stevesaenz.com Steve Saenz

    If what you are saying is true, which I happen to believe is the case, the implications are profound. The first thing that comes to mind are the people who read (and also believe) this who work for companies that cannot or will not become extraordinary organizations.

  • http://www.oncast.com.br Samuel

    Even harder than building outstanding products with incomparable user experiences is to build successful teams that can really thrive and last cohesively. If you can do that, you certainly will deliver a great product.

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

      It’s all about people and the connections we can create between us.

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  • http://rossbelmont.com Ross Belmont

    I ran across this interesting article about how forward-thinking people evangelized the Quality movement in the 80s:


    I noticed a lot of parallels, and it makes sense that UX folks would not be the first ones trying to get companies to change behavior.

    This article, focusing on buy-in, was also pretty good:


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  • Thomas Anderson

    I don’t believe empathy can be learned, so unless you’re starting a company from scratch you’ll get saddled with these un-empathic folk, alongside the usual empire builders, egomaniacs and blockers. As far as I know no one has ever been sacked for lack of empathy so getting rid of these people is sadly impossible :-(

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog Whitney Hess

      Thomas, there is extensive research that has found that lack of emotional intelligence is the leading cause of employee firings — it leads to team conflicts and lack of productivity. And I’m very curious to know why you don’t believe empathy can be learned. There is meditation, yoga, journaling, martial arts, coaching. And 2500 years of Buddhism that has focused on cultivating compassion. What’s your evidence of this?

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