Designing the Company, Not the Product

In April, I posted a tweet that became one of my most retweeted of all time.

It was a single statement that was the culmination of 9 months of identity crisis and a total rethink of my consulting business. I wrote about my renewed purpose in a post titled, User Experience is Not Enough.

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.

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?

Shortly thereafter, I was invited to participate on a panel at the Northside Festival in Brooklyn titled, “Design the Company, Not the Product.” Moderated by Phin Barnes, a partner at First Round Capital, along with Anthony Caselena, CEO and founder of Squarespace, and Chris Shiflett, co-founder and co-organizer of Brooklyn Beta, we covered topics from defining the problem to hiring to empathy to scaling culture. It was a fantastic hour and our audience was really engaged, asking great questions of the panel and sticking around afterwards to keep chatting.

I was quite pleased to see the panel covered by Inc. Magazine, under the topic of Company Culture. The article, Design Your Company, Not Your Product, does a great job of summing up the discussion and synthesizing the themes. The four of us could have talked about this stuff for hours, and hopefully we’ll get another chance to soon.

Hess said to remember that all businesses exist to solve a problem.

“A lot of companies people work with have a solution in mind, but don’t know what problem they’re solving,” she said. “If you don’t know what the problem is you’re trying to solve, why are you in business in the first place?”

Hess said when she counsels companies on this–from four person operations to 30,000 ones–she ends up playing a role that is kind of like that of a group-therapist, helping the employees communicate with each other.

“It can be very easy to stop talking to the other people you run the business with in a meaningful way,” she said. “Take a step back and say ‘this is why we’re here.’ Make sure every decision that’s made is here to support that.”

Thanks to Tim Donnelly over at Inc., Charlie O’Donnell for helping to organize the panel, and all the folks at Northside Festival for hosting us.

So, what are you doing to design your company today?

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    • says

      At my last full-time job, we were required to read Good to Great within our first six months of working there. But like anything, it’s not just having read a book that creates a culture; it’s believing in the same values, having the same goals, and trusting each other enough to create greatness in the world together.

  1. Emily says

    Hi Whitney,

    Have you encountered any companies yet that are too far gone to be designed? Not to sound bleak, but I’m wondering if internal politics and years of doing things one way can just be too much to overcome when trying to create a UX based culture and process.


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