Thoughts on Corporate User Experience

January 25th, 2011
Published on
January 25th, 2011

Recently, I was asked to share my opinion on the subject of “Corporate Interaction Design.” Veiled as a fairly innocuous research project, the students asked questions like “Do you recognize current trends in Corporate Identity?” and “Which parts of corporate identity will be of primary importance in the foreseeable future?” Well, “to be honest,” I told them, “I really don’t know.” Truth be told, I still don’t. But ever since, I’ve had the questions running though my head—what do I think?

Like most designers, I’m a passive thinker, which means that even if I didn’t exert a lot of energy in immediately answering questions, I’ll spend a lot of time thinking about my answers after the fact. The questions that these students asked resonated with me in particular because, at one time, I worked as a computer science intern at a major US corporation. During that internship, I saw firsthand a number of design travesties that I’ve since explored in my professional work, including: design after development, landing-page politics, design by committee, etc.

Flash forward to nearly two years ago. I’m chucking along as I read Dustin Curtis’s cutting (read: brilliant) letter to American Airlines. I’m subsequently unsurprised by what I read in the response from their UX Architect. And in short, I feel vindicated. This interchange aligns with my experience: most corporate “cultures” tend to hold back the efforts of well intentioned designers. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” turns into “Even if it is broke, we’ll need to confirm that everyone understands why it’s broken and how we could possibly fix it before we begin to entertain a solution.”

Then, last month, Kristina Bjoran writes an article with eye-opening (but nonetheless unsurprising) research results: bad interaction design—even if it’s provided by world-renowned brands—is still bad interaction design. Users respond independently of their brand associations. Here, they have no allegiance.

Which leads me to conclude that, yes, I too don’t care whether a design comes from the head or the heart; whether it’s backed by Coca-Cola Corporation or by a local lemonade stand doesn’t matter to me. My experience with “corporate” design could be described as a touch jaded but, on the whole, I regard recently redesigned websites such as Delta and Bank of America with the same bemused curiosity that I approach all websites of their stature. In other words, I expect a lot from professional design.

Corporate design vs. expectation

In general, I think a user’s experience of a thing is colored by their expectations of that thing. If it looks like a duck and sounds like a duck, chances are, people expect it to be a duck. If it turns out that it isn’t a duck, that isn’t a bad thing, per se; it just means that now that it has someone’s attention it has to do something with it.

Which makes corporations all the more curious. In one sense, people expect great things from corporations. And in another, people tend to get quite the opposite, as so eloquently evidenced by Dustin Curtis’s letter. The corporations that are most successful tend to pull a “sheep in wolf’s clothing” routine. Apple, JetBlue, Netflix, Amazon, etc. are all corporations in the strictest sense, but where others disappoint, these companies delight and surprise. In other words, these corporations don’t fit our expectations of “corporations.”

That’s counterintuitive, though. Corporate America is the proverbial “land where dreams come true,” is it not? Shouldn’t we expect the same for the corporate user’s experience?

In theory, if an entrepreneur is lucky enough to imagine, design, build, market, and sell something—anything—boundless joy awaits him/her and, potentially, customers alike. But where capitalism giveth, capitalism taketh away. Yesterday’s largest corporations have to contend with issues of supply chain, labor management, efficiency, politics, etc. Running a successful, mature corporation requires that executives simultaneously juggle a huge number of variables that affect their bottom line. Inevitably, the cost-benefit analysis of “user experience” doesn’t add up, so it’s the first thing to go.

This doesn’t describe all corporations, of course. Consider Apple, everyone’s favorite experience-conscious corporation. In late 1983, what was then Apple Computer ran an otherwise obscure television commercial attacking their larger, “big brother” competitor, IBM

In terms of units sold, the efficacy of this ad was dubious at best. But this video did one thing remarkably well: it told the world that the Apple experience would be different from 99% of the other experiences out there. In a marketplace saturated with crap, the difference Apple promised in 1983 was exciting. Today, it still is.

Finding your Zag

The concept of difference as a marketable trait is nothing new. In his 2006 book Zag, world-renowned brand expert Marty Neumeier essentially says that being different is absolutely necessary. Throughout the book, he walks budding entrepreneurs through the various reasons why this is true. To designers, though, the logic is simple: in a world made up of countless brands and icons, fashions and fads, and marketing copy galore, how does someone—anyone— stand out? By being different, of course.

I’ll save you the book report, though. Instead, I’d like to use Marty’s thesis to frame a larger question: if today’s most successful companies must be different, then why not yesterday’s? What should consumers think about “established” brands like Pepsi or Coca Cola? Especially when it comes to the digital space? or how about American Airlines? Why are so many of today’s biggest companies, well, pedestrian?

It’s a question of trust

There are many things that large corporations can do to combat negative public perception of their brand—namely, improve their user experience! As earlier illustrated, most large corporations have a basic product/service that makes money. Throughout their routine operations, these companies must go the extra mile to objectively improve their supply chain: reducing costs and saving on time and labor.

But what these companies make up for in dollars, they can lose in customers. To bring the process full-circle, corporations must listen to their customers and improve the more subjective parts of their product’s experience. UX Designer Whitney Hess detailed a fantastic example of this early last year, when Dominos Pizza decided to rebuild their pizza from the bottom up:

Dominos isn’t not alone. More recently, JetBlue launched a campaign to bring honesty and integrity back to the business of airline travel. Rather than focusing on themselves, though, JetBlue’s slogan now proclaims: “You above all.” What does that mean to unassuming customers?

Stock photography is notably absent from JetBlue’s latest advertising campaign You Above All. Instead, CEO Dave Barger says the company’s emphasis is on “humanity.”

With all of the “honesty,” “integrity,” and “humanity” being bandied about, it can certainly feel that today’s corporations are being more than a little bit disingenuous. After all, every corporation can’t be about me, can it?

Actions speak louder

While some corporations feel the need to document their process and openly tell customers that they’re improving their experience (pardon the mess, we’re under construction), others start from a more humble place. Google’s corporate user experience manifesto, for example, clearly shows that they care about the people using their software, but they don’t plaster that fact on their homepage.

Which brings me back to one of the last, most telling responses I gave to that survey:
In my mind ‘corporate’ tends to mean means cold, but also well–orchestrated.
I expect the corporations in my life to have things under control. If I message the event manager of a hastily-prepared after party, I can reasonably expect some delay. When I message the company that’s managing my company’s holiday party, I expect something completely different. At some level, it’s all about trust.

Abstracting away the details, the word “corporation” is great for getting things done, but it also bring with it qualities that are difficult to empathize with. All that most customers want out of their perceived experience with a “corporation”—not to be confused with the product it sells, mind you— can actually be summed up in the Three Laws of Robotics. If, here, we replace “robots” with “corporations”:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Ironically, were corporations to act according to the laws of robotics, consumers might find these entities are less self-interested and more customer friendly in all of their interactions.

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