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The Battle Between Your Company and Your Customer

Posted September 25, 2014

Experience design is always about a person. Only people have experiences. So as experience designers, we are trying to create an experience that results in some sort of objective that a person moves through. We’re designing around the idea of “wanting something to happen” to that person.

The question I’ve been asking myself is, “what is the objective?” It can be granular like getting someone to perform some specific micro interaction, or the overall resulting impression of the end to end experience.

But why do you care about that? An altruistic UX cause you hold dear? Or maybe trying to turn the revenue needles in the right direction by using experiences to move the metrics, the dollars and cents? What is the actual purpose of using a customer’s experience as a motivator for why you conduct your work the way you do?

User Centered Design

There’s a notion, some would say the ultimate notion, around user centered design as being the core axiom of experience design. It’s a focus that people who want to deliver a good experience strive to sustain. You design experiences, and you do that with the user as the center. Easy enough.

But it’s an incomplete idea. User centered only implies a vantage point, a single dimension. It doesn’t tell you anything about why it is centered on that particular subject – the user.

I think we all presume that it is because being centered on the user equates to being primarily invested in the user’s success and experience, which is a natural course of thought. You stand at the user’s vantage point to benefit the user’s needs as your primary goal. Is there a lesser talked about aspect of user centered design and UX overall, one that crosses the aisle into a place where being user centered hasn’t been the historic focus.

The Business of Design

As the business of experience design grows and becomes more of a commodity every day, the user centered design axoim may have to have a second dimension added to it. Something I don’t think is as clearly defined was the answer to the question of being “user centered for what.

Well, the customer’s experience is the obvious answer. But that’s still half the equation. Why does the customer’s experience matter? If we are user centered, what is our reasoning for being so? I think there are two answers:

  1. We empathize and care about our user, and a good experience for them is a victory for us and primary goal, which can be a vehicle for business success.
  2. We care about our businesses success and the things that move our needles in the right direction, and often focusing on the customer’s experience is the vehicle for that.

The two answers can be seen as a loop that feeds back in to itself. They’re not mutually exclusive. In fact, they’re complementary.

But there’s something else at play here. It’s the idea that you can be motivated by either, but focused on the other. It’s a strange concept; being user centered to focus on your own business success, with the user’s experience as a secondary outcome, and on top of that delight and positivity might not be part of the requirement. That’s not the empathy driven, altruistic perspective of UX we know and love.

Where You Are and Where You Are Looking

It’s this idea of the push and pull of customer vs. company motivation that was the impetus for this working model I am calling the Center-Success matrix (working title). There are 2 factors; center and success.

Center represents where you derive your values and guiding principles. In times where you need guidance, you plant your feet in the center and look from that point of view to remind yourself “this is where I am supposed to be looking from.”

Success represents the object you are primarily trying to serve. When you stand in the center, you are looking towards the success. Making something successful just translates to meeting the subjects goals in a satisfactory way. When coupled with the center, you get the interplay of the motivation and the subject.

I use the words company or customer here to represent a bunch of loose synonyms. You could say internal and external, product and user, or whatever makes sense to you. In the end, it is summed up as “we look to this first thing and use it as the point of view in order to serve the needs of this second thing.”

Company vs. Customer

The matrix is super simple, it breaks down into 4 quadrants.

  1. Company centered for company success
  2. Customer centered for company success
  3. Company centered for customer success
  4. Customer centered for customer success

These quadrants aren’t listed “best to worst.” It is meant to be an objective model to give us something to evaluate ideas with. The ambiguities become apparent very fast when breaking each of the quadrants down. While the four combinations are absolute in their descriptions, I think it is more about how you stack them up as priorities than it is about staying firm to a specific dogma. It’s not absolute and nothing is mutually exclusive.


Company Centered for Company Success: This mindset takes its cues from the company’s vantage point, with the intent of delivering the success of the company foremost. The customer isn’t really a primary factor here. For whatever reason, the customer isn’t necessarily a highly valued asset in the process.

Customer Centered for Company Success: This is the mindset that we get our cues from our customers, but our primary focus is business objectives. The customer is researched and we take time to empathize and design around them, and we leverage that to push towards specific business goals. This might mean we’re employing “user centered design” to base our decisions on, but that doesn’t mean it’s always a positive impact on the customer’s experience. Being customer centered may not always mean the result is what is best for the customer.

Company Centered for Customer Success: This is a harder mindset to articulate. It is the idea that a company can be primarily focused on delivering success to their customers, but not employing a user centered viewpoint. You can be driven internally and use internal cues, extreme subject matter expertise, and other wisdom to generate customer success without being customer centered. The implication here is that the company knows what to do to make the customers successful and they don’t need to be customer focused to do that.

Customer Centered for Customer Success: This is true mindset of focusing on the customer and putting their best interest first. The company is customer centered, using customer focused principles that are geared to work for customer success as the primary goal. You take the customer’s cues and you drive with empathy and their best interest, and this may mean you make some business sacrifices. The implication is that business results are an outcome of focusing on the customer’s success, but what is best for the customer may not be best for the company, but we do it anyways.

That which you work against works against you

With this all in mind, I think a lot of people in the business of designing experiences, and people in the business of running the business, come into conflict with eachother (and themselves). There’s a cognitive dissonance that happens.  Can you be customer centered for the purpose of your company’s success primarily? Can you wake up and admit that your goal for customer centered, empathetic design is to meet the revenue projections and move all the financial needles in the right direction?

We want to give our customer’s a good experience. But we also feed ourselves, our families, and often our owners and shareholders through cold hard cash. What does it mean to be customer centered, and use that focus to make business decisions that don’t necessarily improve the customer’s experience?

A cynic might say that you can use the user centered design to get people to do what you need, even if their delight and best interest isn’t your primary goal. Or they might say that you can focus on user empathy and delight first, even if it doesn’t push the business outcomes in the direction you want; the users are happier, and making users happy is our top priority.

When it comes time to make decisions that have no clear answer, we turn back to that center, and to the success. What is your primary priority in that moment, and which vantage point do you want to take.

All things in moderation, including moderation

There’s no answer in this, only observations. A lot of time, the amazing customer experience will be the thing driving the business results, and will also be the primary focus of how time and energy is spent. But there’s the other side of focusing on your business objectives and looking at those as your primary target, and then using user centered design to get there.

There’s nothing inherently bad or good in any of the foci, it’s the intention and the compromises that will end up shaping the user experience in the end overall. Most of all, it’s a way to ground yourself during times of decision or conflict. When do you apply user centered design methods to primarily help the customer? When do you use the same methods to primarily help the business, and does user centered design always mean that you have a delightful and empathetic experience as the main priority? Or does user centered design sometimes mean delivering a worse experience that serves the business needs first.

Subtle nuance between how you phrase things can have a big impact on how you and your organization acts, and the intention you have in your hearts and minds. You can walk outside and find a whole bunch of designers who will say “empathy and delight with no exceptions! Top priority!” and people with MBAs who will say “empathy and delight is fine, as long as it supports the numbers. Otherwise, deprioritize!” Both extremes are going to hurt everyone involved.

The reality is there are no solid lines drawn or rigid principles. Designing good experiences and doing good business is 10,000 choices a day. The important piece is always remembering that each side feeds into the other, and to use them as complementary priorities that can create a circular process.

In the end, it’s never about the customer vs. the business. It’s about being aware of where you intentionally place your focus.

I love all things experience design. I work as a Principal Service Experience Designer at Intuit in Mountain View, CA.

2 Responses

  1. cam
    cam September 25, 2014 at 3:48 pm |

    Thanks Erik. There’s something very important in here, and not just for UX folk. There’s some amazing potential for this model to help both organisations and individuals become more self-aware and make great choices. Looking forward to seeing where this goes.

  2. Erik Flowers
    Erik Flowers February 4, 2015 at 1:43 pm |

    I’ve been in this situation too. I always have to tell myself, at the end of the day, business is business. I get the feeling of the 2nd generation customer being left out, but in the end, it’s your 1st generation customer who has to have principles and values on what they offer, it can’t be your responsibility, even if you’re an employee. You just do the best job you can and remind yourself “We’re in the shipping product business, not the art business. And we try to meet that first goal with good experiences, but shipping comes first.” Not exactly what I love to say, but that’s just bizness.

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