Book Review: Subject To Change

Subject To Change, by Peter Merholz, Brandon Schauer, David Verba, and Todd Wilkens (Adaptive Paths), O’Reilly, 2008


In 1999, Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger formulated their 95 theses into what became the Cluetrain Manifesto, which was then published as a book in 2000. This pointed to new world marketplace, where markets are seen as conversations. To sum up this paradigm shift in the authors’ own words:

“A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies.”

Perhaps we’ve already seen this shift starting to take place. Old-economy models of management and customer relationships have been replaced by fast-moving, transparent ways of doing business. The authors of Subject To Change recognize this change as well:

“We’re sitting at the crux of a fundamental shift in the ways in which businesses engage with their customers. There are many reasons for this shift—globalization, containerization, digitization—and these emerging forces are causing consternation for businesses that don’t quite know how to react. The old tools at their disposal, such as efficiency, optimization, just-in-time manufacturing, blitz marketing, and outsourcing no longer provide the gains or competitive advantages they once did.” (p. 3).

Subject To Change guides us through this new environment from a user experience perspective, making a compelling overall case for experience design. And it does so with a sense of urgency: experience design and experience strategy aren’t things you should slowly start getting into. They are crucial to your business. You need to fundamentally transform your relationship with your customers and how you create products. Now.

A key message in Subject To Change is that “the experience is the product,” which is also the title of Chapter 1. Technology and richer feature sets alone are no longer sufficient to stay ahead in a competitive marketplace. Instead, you must create meaningful, engaging experiences to bring value to your business. And ultimately, from a user’s standpoint, there is no difference between the product and the experience.

An experience strategy, the topic of Chapter 2, is a critical step towards good experience design. The authors show that differentiation is of primary importance here, directly recalling Michael Porter’s perspective on strategy outlined in his landmark article “What Is Strategy” (HBR, 1996). A strategy based on parity is destined to fail. Instead, the goal is to find where you are different from competitors and highlight that value proposition in everything you do, including in the product design. Design and strategy, then, are not mutually exclusive; in fact, you could say that the former is the embodiment of the latter. Great product experiences demand a solid experience strategy.

What’s more, having an experience strategy is critical for dealing with change and uncertainty. Your product design may fail here and there, or you may have to change it often, but if the strategy is well-defined the user experience will still be consistent. Having a clearly articulated and explicit strategy, then, is central to being able to react and accommodate change:

“You have to recognize that a system will degrade, and make it such that such entropy doesn’t shatter the entire experience. The true success of experience design isn’t how well it works when everything is operating as planned, but how well it works when thing start going wrong.” (p. 99).

Unfortunately, many organizations overlook the value of a creating a clear vision of the intended user experience. The authors point out:

“All too often, product teams have no central vision to work toward. At best, there is a list of requirements to meet; more typically, they simply have a set of features to develop. Designing and developing to requirement and feature list leads to unsatisfactory experiences, because those lists aren’t oriented to the perspective of the user. As they make decisions along the way, teams’ concerns for features, data, and technology trumps [sic] serving the customer. This is in large part because they have requirement and feature lists in front of them, but nothing to represent the user’s ultimate experience.” (p. 26)

One tactic to clarify a product vision is through prototypes. Vision prototypes make a common experience goal tangible and visible to others on the development team. What’s more, this type of exploration is important for the general design process. The overall take-away: make the vision of the user’s experience explicit early on.

But where does experience vision come from? In part, it comes from empathy for users. Building empathy for users, the authors advise us, is the first step on your way to transformative experience design—preceding and directly informing the experience strategy.

Traditional marketing techniques, however, don’t create empathy. People are not the gregarious consumers marketing data often portraits them as:

“To cultivate empathy for customers and users, it’s vital that an organization have a realistic view of those people’s lives. We must understand people as they are rather than as market segments or demographics.” (p. 43)

Even some traditional user-centered research methods don’t necessarily build empathy. Many approaches view people as rational actors or goal-driven buyers. Though methods like GOMS have a place in user research programs, they often miss the bigger picture. Alternatively, the authors advocate seeing “user experience” as a holistic phenomenon, taking emotions, culture, and context into account. In other words, don’t oversimplify the user’s experience, and instead embrace its complexity and vagueness.

Luckily, there are methods and approaches for capturing a holistic view of users. These often contrast traditional marketing techniques. Ethnography, for one, currently leads the pack of such holistic techniques and is on the lips of many experience designers these days. It’s curious, however, that although very effective, ethnography is still not widespread. A recent study on methods clearly demonstrates this: of the 20 methods compared, ethnography emerged as the most effective for creativity and innovation, but was one of the least commonly used techniques. (See “Ideation for product innovation: What are the best methods?” by Robert Cooper and Scott Edgett).

A central point in gaining empathy is that user research must go far beyond just listening to what people say. Looking at verbatim customer comments from questionnaires, for instance, can be flawed and skewed. It assumes that users are capable of expressing the real issues they are having in words, and that you—the reader of their comments—can draw the right conclusions from those comments.

But even if users could formulate their issues clearly and you could interpret them accurately, they won’t tell you want to do or how to design a product. They can’t. People don’t know more than what they’ve already experienced when it comes to product design, and they won’t be able to see beyond what they know. As Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

Or, consider the now-famous collaborative filtering navigation mechanism for book recommendations on Maryam Mohit, responsible for the online customer experience at Amazon, explains in an interview that the idea for that feature was inspired by users, but didn’t come directly from their comments:

“It’s a combination of listening really hard to customers, and innovating on their behalf. For example, quite awhile ago we developed the “similarities” feature – the one that says “people who bought this also bought that.” In focus groups, no customer ever specifically requested that feature. But if you listened to customers talk about how they buy things, they’d say, my friend bought this, and I like what they like. In other words, they get recommendations from people they trust. There was a cognitive leap, based on those comments, to realizing that we could create something like that based on the data we had. That’s an example where there was a need expressed by customers, but the innovation was taking that general need and making the leap to a technology that meets that need in a new way.”

To be able to design for an innovative experience on the user’s behalf, you first have to build empathy. To do so, go beyond just listening to customers, and observe what they do as well.

The authors Subject To Change therefore urge businesses to make user research a core competency. This doesn’t mean throwing a few extra dollars at consultants to perform a few more usability tests each year. Instead, everyone in the organization must have an implicit empathy for the users of your products and services. First-hand contact with users helps greatly.

All of these recommendations in Subject To Change are not just idealistic talk without regard of project constraints. Thankfully, the authors have a very realistic perspective on product development. They recognize that having a primary focus on the user experience doesn’t mean you should ignore technology or business constraints. Of course these things matter, and they are huge challenges to solve in their own right. But the approach advocated in Subject To Change suggests that the user experience must be the centripetal force pushing downward on traditional technology- and feature-centered perspectives of product developement, rather than having those aspects act as a centrifugal force outward on the user experience.

Tim O’Reilly makes a similar observation in his blog posting “Designing from the Outside In.” He writes:

“Isn’t it curious how many of the applications and ideas getting the most buzz right now are coming from fertile collaborations between designers and developers? In addition to basecamp, there’s Flickr, conceived by designers Stewart Butterfield and Caterina Fake. And who put their finger on AJAX, the meme of the moment, but web design firm Adaptive Path. Are designers the new heroes of the computer industry?”

O’Reily also quotes from Christopher Alexander’s landmark book A Pattern Language, which is about user-centered patterns of building architecture. Alexander writes:

“To lay out paths, first place goals at natural points of interest. Then connect the goals to one another to form the paths.”

This suggests that to create the optimal footpaths in a public space, it’s best to first put in the lawn and see where people walk. Then lay down the pavement to accommodate their natural walking patterns.

However, designing from “outside in” is often opposed to the organization and culture of many companies. Recognizing this, the authors of Subject To Change devote considerable space to discussions on how companies are organized and how organizational structures affect experience design. They point out that aligning an entire organization towards experience design represents a fundamentally different approach to how the company is run. Despite these challenges, the recommendation is to also make Design (with a capital D) a core competency—along with user research.

”Most companies are absolutely capable of creating the necessary processes. It’s just that this capability has languished because design activities have been discouraged in standard business practice. The ability to design and create new experiences is diffused and scattered throughout every technical and creative discipline. In addition, it’s typically relegated to lowest levels of an organization, given the least thought and analysis, and, not surprisingly, products results that are well beneath its potential.” (p. 111).

Bill Buxton, a notable author and speaker on human-computer interaction, corroborates this notion in an article “Innovation vs. Invention,” taking a perhaps more hard-core position. He writes:

“Is design leadership an executive level position? Do you have a Chief Design Officer reporting to the president? My view is that if you do not, you are not serious about design or innovation. Furthermore, you are telegraphing this fact to all of your employees, along with a clear message that they need not be either. As a result, you might as well fire all of your creative people, since you are setting them up to fail anyhow.”

It seems that good experience design—and innovation for that matter—must come from the top down within an organization, as well as from the bottom up. With out broad, high-level support for transformative design, good product experience won’t happen.

Why should businesses care? Well, the benefits of experience design to businesses are many. Chief among these is customer loyalty. The authors describe in some length what they call The Long “Wow!,” or a continued series of offerings that “wow” users. This means reaching beyond typcial measurements of customer satisfaction or creating things like loyalty programs. Instead, look deep into the lives of your users for opportunities to amaze and delight them through design. Make experience design a strategic advantage for your organization to bring value to your business. Win over your customers’ hearts.

On a more tactical level, the authors also propose agile developments methods as an important way to deal with fast changing projects. But it’s not just the process or steps that formal agile methods offer which are important. For sure, agile methods aren’t really structured to accommodate user experience design: they tend to focus on implementation. Still, there are aspects of agile methods than experience design can directly benefit from. You should therefore focus on the agile ideals: iterative design, open communication, and experimentation are all critical in melding agile development and experience design.


Overall, three themes emerge as the key elements in experience design throughout the book: strategy, empathy for users, and organizational transformation. This mirrors the main points made in Jared Spool’s recent keynote speech at the 2008 IA Summit in Miami entitled “Journey to the Center of Design.” His company, User Interface Engineering (UIE), investigated what development teams that create great experiences do differently than those that don’t. Their evidence shows three distinguishing elements: vision, feedback, and culture. In other words, teams that consistently create great user experiences have a clear vision of the final experience, they have proper channels of input from users that build empathy, and they have a company culture that truly supports Design. Teams that are not so successful lack these traits.


Subject To Change repeats many common themes found in the user-centered design literature from the last three or so decades. User research? Of course. Task analysis? Yes. Personas? Also good. But this book goes beyond the tenants of user-centered design to present a framework for understanding experience design. Start with a vision of the experience, gain empathy for users, and work in a culture that supports creativity and innovation. And above all, let your paths naturally adapt as needed.

The real value of this book is that present a case for experience design that makes good business sense. In fact, Subject To Change shows why experience design is critical for businesses in today’s market. The user-centered design community has come up short on this point: for all of user-centered dogma and research studies out there, we’ve failed to tell businesses how to get value from their products or to tell engineers how to build products. As a result, Subject To Change is not just for designers and should appeal to managers and developers alike.

Subject To Change paints a broad picture of user experience, but it also goes beyond that. It’s really about how to enable an organization to engage in Design Thinking, which isn’t only for designers. To effectively and consistently innovate and create compelling user experiences, everyone in an organization needs to be involved in Design in different ways. So, at its core, this is also a book about innovation and the mindset needed to create a culture of innovation.

This is a slim volume with eight short chapters over about 170 pages of text. The writing is compact and clear. And there is no mincing of words. Some may actually find it too emphatic at times, with very direct imperatives. But given today’s heavy engineering-oriented or feature-oriented product development approaches, such a tone is needed.

Subject To Change is a much-needed wake-up call for businesses looking to stay competitive in the 21st century. This is an excellent, well-written book packed with great advice from veterans in the field. It’s highly recommended and essential for anyone currently trying to innovate products and services in just about any field.


Quotes from the book:

“The key to succeeding in the contemporary marketplace is to fundamentally change your relationship with customers. Once you stop thinking of your customers as consumers and begin approaching them as people, you’ll find a whole new world of opportunities to meeting their needs and desires.” (p. 3)

“We live in an increasingly uncertain world, where the tools that served us well for so long no longer do. Technology isn’t sufficient; we can’t simply add features to attract an audience. There is no more efficiency to squeeze out of our operations, nor defects to remove from our products.” (p. 14)

“The experience is the product.” (p. 14)

“Strategies of parity are low value and short-lived. Strategies of delivering new offerings for novelty’s sake won’t survive much further than the infomercial. These approaches center on features and technologies rather than focusing on the one thing that really matters—the experience. But even though experience matters to everyone, we almost always lose sight of it in product development.” (p. 25)

“If earlier reductionist models offered ways of avoiding or reducing the complexity in people’s lives, these new approaches are our attempts to acknowledge and embrace that complexity. By doing so, we are able to understand people more honestly and completely. We gain the potential for greater insights because we see and account for things left out of the old models. We build empathy that gives us the ability to provide a truly great product or service experience. This greater understanding also allows organizations to handle uncertainty and reduce risk.” (p. 58)

“Stop Designing ‘Products’” (title of Chapter 5, p. 79)

“So there you have it: the secret sauce is to focus on experiences by delving into the complexities of people’s lives, and then to create elegant systems to support them.” (p. 105)

“Anything elevated to level of an organizational competency has to align with both the organization’s strategy and its system for doing business. Without this business perspective, design fails. Strategy, systems, and design are all innately about tradeoffs.” (p. 116)

“Design can and will fail when it’s practiced outside the context of systems and strategy. […] When applied well, strategy provide useful boundaries to the design activity.[…] Sam Lucente, head of design at HP, has also shared his take on the effectiveness of such constraints: ‘For the longest time, ideation was about throwing out as many ideas as you can. We’ve realized pretty quickly it’s really not about a bunch of ideas; it’s about really good strategy, alignment with business, diagnostics, and deep customer understanding. And when you’re ready to talk about ideas, bringing people to the table who are informed is what it’s all about’.” (p. 118-119)

“As markets, people’s lives, and the world are becoming more complex, many of the old, easy answers to business problems are insufficient. Developing creative, agile, and experience-focused approaches will be a key business practice for small and large companies alike.” (p. 176)

About Jim Kalbach

Head of Customer Experience at MURAL


  1. Excellent commentary alongside this review which I find really interesting, and I must buy the book.

    What is fascinating for me here is the way that Usability, as a business, a discipline, is in danger of parking its tanks on the innovation lawn. Dogma can easily exist and that is a real problem without a design head being on the board room table.

    I fear that Usability needs to look at itself again, and realise that it should do much more to help businesses create the experience for their users. The only way they can do this is by being open minded to new techniques and methods. Ethnographic work is not seen enough in Usability agencies – why is this?

    Jared Spool also mentioned embracing failure as a key part of innovating, and getting constant feed back from the customer. How many times are personas made and then left at the side of a designer’s desk because they were just too two-dimensional? Get the designer to meet a user – then you may start getting somewhere. I just fear we are getting more bogged down in process and its stifling creativity.

    It is good to see a framework for experience design being outlined here, we need it more than ever.

  2. Pingback: Growth Leaders and Personas « Experiencing Information

  3. Thanks for sharing your excellent review!
    Have just read the book and enjoyed coming across your review. FWIW, my thoughts concur with yours!

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