The Value Of The Human Layer

Why do businesses and customers still think differently about UX design?


On innumerable occasions over the years, I’ve heard client teams referring to design/ux/ui as ‘just the tip of a very big project iceberg’. The inference is that it’s a necessary part of the process, but neither the largest nor the most important.

That accolade is generally assigned to the technology platform, which typically eats the majority of the time, budget and energy given to any major digital service. The design of the experience, and the service that it represents, is usually viewed thus:

Ask a typical customer and their view will be rather different. They see the world inverted. For them, their entire experience is defined by the human layer: the interface between them and the technology and data platforms that power their experience. They assess the service based on what they can see, read, hear, touch, and interact with, so for them, the design of the experience is more like this:

Customers appreciate, of course, that technology sits beneath many of the services they use and that becomes particularly evident when something goes wrong. When the video doesn’t stream, however, they rarely say “damn that bloody CDN and its flaky caching architecture”. They simply say “the bloody video isn’t playing in bloody app X” and then keep tapping away at it furiously. To the customer, the interface is the service.

The perception of value placed on design, even after years of digital services growing to be some of the world’s biggest businesses, is still out of balance. Owners of services and consumers of services are literally at opposing ends of a very long scale.

We’ve frequently seen clients buy tens of thousands of man days and spend millions of pounds on technology development while limiting the resources assigned to the accompanying design programme to a fractional percentage of the technology investment. Now, let’s be realistic, some technology platforms are just expensive to build, but the disconnect between value to customer and value to owner remains enormous.

Most often, this plays out in prioritization. Where we would polish the behaviour and presentation of elements to the customer, a technology team will typically prioritise the delivery of basic versions of the same features so that they can deliver more of them. Where we will want time to craft the fine details that inherently convey quality, the business owner will want the time spent on template variant or a handful of edge cases.

This is not a designers’ whim or a vanity exercise: it is what comes most naturally to us as designers. Our natural mode is to prioritise the customer in order to raise the likely chance of commercial success – because we know that customers base so many of their decisions on how easy it is to operate, or how good it is. And our job, ultimately, is to help our clients build commercial success by influencing their customers to do the things that make them most money.

I think it comes down to a series of factors. On one hand, design studios like ours don’t do a good enough job of quantifying and communicating the value of the work we do. It’s often bound up in softer measures, but we need to work harder to put numbers against things that we can quantify. Equally, it’s the responsibility of senior business leaders to place a higher priority on the customer-facing experience of their services and to incentivise those responsible for delivery programmes to focus on them.

Is there an easy formula that can be applied? Or a standard percentage that should be considered good practice? Frankly, no. No two services are the same, nor any two organizations. Ultimately, this is a question of prioritizing a commitment to the customer experience and being prepared to back it with time, money and management resources. The pot doesn’t have to get any bigger; it just needs to be distributed differently.

Let’s be clear: in this equation, the customer is the determining factor. If they define a service by the human layer, then we should all give that human layer the importance it deserves when we’re creating services.



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