Towards Human-Centered Business

Thoughts on a more humanistic mindset across the organization

In 1997, Steve Jobs returned to Apple after having been previously asked to leave the company he founded. In a town hall meeting to kick off the start of his tenure as the new CEO, he said: “You have to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology.”

With this, he gave some insight into how he was going to turn Apple around: he was going to reverse the equation of how to build and market software. Rather than inventing some new technology in a lab and then finding consumers to purchase it, he wanted to start with a human view, and craft the technology around it.

His approach was successful, and Apple is now one of the richest companies in the world. For those of us coming from human-centered design (HCD) and related fields (such as user-centered design, design thinking, and user experience design), we felt like our perspective was justified. After all, HCD has been around for decades, and Jobs’ thinking was not new. It was just applied in a new way that encompassed a broader scope: the entire company.

So why hasn’t HCD had a bigger and broader impact, in general? Truth is, aside from an occasional success story, HCD has largely failed to instruct businesses exactly what to do, I believe. Realistically, the field has inadequately tied design success to business success. I’m not talking about the handful of ROI calculations you’ll find but a deeper impact as found with the Apple story.

HCD remains mostly academic and a “nice-to-have,” often viewed as a superficial finishing touch with minimal impact. At least, this has been my personal observation from having worked in various organizations, big and small, for the last 20+ years.

Part of the problem with HCD (and “design thinking” and “UX design,” for that matter), I feel, is with the word “design.” It’s a loaded term that has many connotations, typically conjuring up associations with surface-level appearance and interactions. Even if practitioners of HCD intend to apply Design (with a capital D) to how a solution works and not just its appearance, others don’t necessarily see it that way.

As a result, Design — HCD or other design-related fields — is something that a team of people “over there” do. So another part of the problem is that if you’re in marketing, sales, customer success, business strategy, or any other part of the enterprise, having a human-centered skill set is not a normal part of your team. Or, if someone from those non-design teams did practice anything resembling HCD, it’s not likely a part of a regular workflow. Instead, HCD and related fields have become spot-fix techniques for problem-solving, not a way of thinking and doing business as usual.

It’s not surprising, then, that fields like customer experience (CX) have developed outside of design. CX fills a gap left by HCD and related fields, namely to have a function focused on customers that isn’t just about users of a system.

Unfortunately, CX is also limited in scope: the word “customer” implies a bias towards “buyer.” A focus on human goals and needs is not a primary concern. Instead, CX focuses primarily on the go-to-market motions in a company, reducing friction in the consumption process to increase sales and reach of an offering. While this is beneficial to both customer and company, it brings a bias with it, namely that people want to or even need to interact with a given company or brand.

But let’s be clear: while the consumption experience is important to understand, it’s really an egotistical view of the people you serve. It views them as consumers first, and the aim is to make consumption easier, quicker, and generally better. Truth be told, CX is far from being human-centered.

Now, this might seem like splitting semantic hairs, pulling apart connotations of words like “design” and pointing out a slight distinction between “user” and “customer.” But there are real implications in these differences that drive behavior and alignment in an organization, I believe. Words matter, and the language we use can be a significant tipping point for many people.

To this end, I’d like to propose a phrase to describe a more holistic stance on orienting an entire organization to the people it serves: human-centered business (HCB).

HCB overcomes some of the inherent gaps in HCD and CX. It’s human-centered because it views people as individuals with real human needs and a purpose in life. People aren’t “users” or “customers” or “consumers”: they are individuals first with their own objectives and desired outcomes. Understanding those objectives and outcomes points to opportunity for creating lasting value and ultimately for business success.

Thus, my use of the word “human” is very intentional to allow for a broader view of the people we serve independent of any technology or solutions. Business opportunity comes not only from optimizing the means, but by carefully studying the ends the people want. As Theodore Levitt liked to tell his students, “people don’t want a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole.” The best starting point for both innovation and go-to-market should be human objectives and outcomes.

Note also that my use of the word “centered” in HCB implies a starting point. It doesn’t mean that other concerns or motions, like sales or technical constraints, aren’t important. Rather it suggests a process: begin with a view of people as humans and solve their problems first. Then, in subsequent steps consider the technology-related and commercial-related aspects of your business.

The word “business” in HCB applies broadly to any organization that serves a group of people, even for non-commercial operations. That is, I don’t see the word “business” referring only to making a profit. Instead, it includes the operations and motions involved for any organization — commercial, nonprofit, governmental, educational, or otherwise — to deliver value to the people it serves.

The important thing to keep in mind is that HCB is not a department or team: it’s the entire franchise. It’s an explicit recognition that to create better products that satisfy real human needs, you have to fix the dysfunctions of the organization itself. It’s not enough that a team or even parts of the company are thinking about the human experience first: the whole company has to be oriented towards human-centered outcomes.

A Way of Seeing

I see HCB as a shift in thinking that is greater than human-centered design and greater than fields like customer experience or user experience design. The differences are perhaps nuanced, but significant:

  • Instead of limiting human-centeredness to a few fields — design or customer experience — I see a broader application of those perspectives to how business gets done across disciplines.
  • Instead of applying human-centered thinking to fix individual problems, we must move to a more ongoing human-centered way of doing business across silos.
  • Instead of targeting the innovation of solution design only, organizations can apply human-centered thinking to go-to-market activities as well.
  • Instead of measuring success by system effectiveness, we can aspire to directly improve business outcomes, including business relationships, partnerships, and strategy.
  • Instead of focusing on users or customers and their experiences, we can shift focus to the goals and needs of people who make up our markets.

The bottom line is that the broad principles of human-centered thinking should be internalized by everyone in the organization. I realize this is not necessarily a completely new idea: others have made similar points to me personally and in writing. Thus, my suggestion of the term “human-centered business” is a recognition of a broader movement that we all continue to struggle with. My hope is that this essay sparks new conversations to progress the idea further. Please join in the conversation here and on social media with the hashtag #humancenteredbiz.

About Jim Kalbach

Head of Customer Experience at MURAL

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