Installing a Customer Champion is a game-changer.
In today’s marketplace, where purchasing decisions are driven by online ratings and reviews of taste-makers and early-adopters, only great products will survive. Why then, are we still stuck with mediocre product? Why are there websites that don’t load, apps that crash, or electronic devices that don’t fit well in our hands? These products all had devoted developers, project managers, designers, and CEOs who worked tirelessly toward a successful launch, only to reach the market and be doomed by mediocre reviews.
So where’s the disconnect?
The disconnect is the difference between intention and execution. Fortunately, good execution isn’t blind luck, but it is something that can be learned by following the example of others. In studying our past and present clients, we have observed a common way-of-work that defines every company that builds great product — successful product companies exalt the voice of the User in all facets of their organizations.
There are plenty of books and papers describing how to practice or conduct user-centered design, but the how-to of installing great design into a corporate structure remains a mystery to many. Despite using the best methodologies and accepted practices, user-centered design often gets lost in the daily grind of product development. Our study of successful product companies revealed a pattern that keeps great design at the forefront of any development cycle, a pattern of execution that greatly minimizes the risk of mediocre reviews in the marketplace. We call this pattern the Four Rules of Great Design.
For the past 18 months we have been suggesting the adoption of the Four Rules of Great Design to our clients, both in physical and digital product development. The results have been nothing short of amazing, with great product a consistent result, rather than the exception.
Rule #1: Name a Customer-Champion for every product you build
This person has only one job: To objectively collect and report User feedback from all available sources, including those within your company (customer service, billing, marketing, etc.), and from outside sources (UX best practices, User testing, competitive analysis).
Your Customer-Champion can be a new-hire or can be picked from your existing talent pool. What is most important is that every product within your organization has a recognized, named Customer-Champion. A person. A face. A personality. The simple act of naming an individual to fill this role sends a powerful message to your development teams and the company as a whole: Great Design is now what we do.
The ability to report User data objectively is critical to the success of the Customer-Champion. Viewing the world through rose-colored lenses does you no good and mediocre or poor User ratings are a guaranteed death knell in any transparent marketplace. Taking such an objective approach to User feedback demands that the placement of your Customer-Champion is almost as important as having one in the first place.
Rule #2: Put your Customer-Champion in the right place within your company
The very best place for your Customer-Champion to sit is on the executive team. Wait, a dedicated Customer-Champion on the executive team? You bet. There is nothing more important to your company than the way Users interact with your product. If the User Experience is mediocre and your product fails, nothing else matters.
The executive Customer-Champion is responsible all day, every day, for every touch-point between the company and its customers—including advertising, sales, customer support, and development. This executive usually doesn’t drive teams, sign checks, or sit in on daily development meetings. His/Her job is to report the User Experience to the rest of the company and drive improvement. There are several examples that give merit to this practice: Think Apple under Steve Jobs, or Disney under Walt Disney, or Virgin under Sir Richard Branson.
While elevating the Customer-Champion to the top of your company’s leadership structure is ideal, we understand it isn’t always practical. The next best place for a Customer-Champion is at the stakeholder (or owner) level of product development. The stakeholder Customer-Champion performs the same tasks as the executive outlined above, but without a seat on the executive team.
Whether in an executive seat or not, the Customer-Champion must hold what we call executive mandate, or the power to say yes or no to a development team. Executive mandate comes with the stakeholder role in Agile and Waterfall development, as well as Six Sigma, Kanban, and JIT methodologies. We recommend this practice regardless of your chosen development methodology.
Naming a Customer-Champion and giving that person executive mandate will have other, ancillary effects on most companies. Since the Customer-Champion is the voice of the User, we have seen teams that were once at odds over design and implementation now working in a more collaborative manner. Design decisions are rooted with the customer or based on best practices, rather than up for debate between team members. When the User is the driving force behind a decision, we’ve noticed greater alignment and teamwork between individuals, as well. There is a renewed vigor toward not simply getting it done, but getting it done well.
Rule #3: Keep your Customer-Champion OUT of daily development
Customer-Champions who are double-tasked with any sort of product development tend to get caught up in iterations and prototyping just like the other members of the development team. The Customer-Champion, when double-tasked with coding or project management or graphic design, eventually becomes embroiled in the development headaches that come with the territory.
Simply put: If you are involved in the minute-to-minute decisions needed to create product, you are too close to that product to have an objective view of the User Experience. This is why writers employ editors and why detectives don’t investigate people they know—they recognize that their bias will hinder their work. The same is true of the Customer-Champion. Once involved with the nitty-gritty of development, any individual will start to make excuses for User behavior, rather than being able to report it objectively.
We have noticed that for many companies, it can be difficult to keep the Customer-Champion out of the development process. At smaller companies, especially, it is nearly impossible to dedicate a single Customer-Champion to every product or service offered. Nonetheless, this rule is critical to create consistently great product. Our suggestion in these instances is to hire an outside Customer-Champion who reports directly to the executive team or the board of directors.
Rule #4: Customer-Champions work the entire product lifecycle
Customer-Champions don’t leave their role when a product is finished, released, launched, etc., just the opposite.
Remember, the Customer-Champion acts as the keeper of all customer touch-points, not just those that pertain to initial product development. Great Design isn’t just about getting a good product to market, it is about a good infrastructure throughout that product’s life cycle. After creating a great User Experience for your product, follow-through is necessary to build loyalty and repeat business. Customer-Champions must be allowed to guard the User Experience of a product long after the sale is over.
This rule continues to have ancillary benefits to company workflow and collaboration:
- When the User is the driving force behind decisions, we have seen different departments that were once at odds begin to work together to benefit the User Experience, as if there were now a unifying goal that was missing previously.
- We’ve seen customer service reps start sharing User feedback with developers in a more collaborative way.
- We’ve seen billing department personnel ask the graphics department to make their contact information more prevalent on the packaging.
- And most interestingly, we’ve seen industrial designers take into consideration the engineering department in the midst of designing electronic devices. Before the Customer-Champion was installed, these two departments rarely spoke, and when they did, it was usually combative. But with the unifying goal of Great Design, they began to work together to produce a better product.
Most of us have a product or two that we love. Products that are a pleasure to view, hold, and interact with. Products that do what they’re supposed to do without trying too hard.
This positive experience is measurable and can be repeated when you install Customer-Champions into your work environment. The Four Rules of Great Design is the pattern used by the best product companies to instill the DNA of their Users into every facet of their organizations.
And it works. It’s why most of us have had several iPhones, or why we still delight in taking our children to that next big movie from Disney. In an evermore transparent marketplace, we must all strive to create products people not only like, but love.
Other featured writings:
This article has helped hundreds of entrepreneurs avoid the costly mistakes associated with hardware startups.How to jumpstart innovation. People print this, and post this, and pass it around – a wonderful poem on discovering the power of Design Thinking, written by a CEO client of ours. …for more articles from our managing partner on Product and Design, please visit LinkedIn.