User Experience, shareholder value, and sustainability: How to do Good Business

Amongst the few convictions I hold, this is a pretty central one:

You can respect your customers, treat them well ? and still do good business.

I strongly believe that the way for a business to succeed in the long term is to focus on establishing and keeping alive solid, sound, healthy relationships to customers, be it the so-called “end users” or business clients. To respect their needs and wishes, to understand their goals and latent desires, and to always and unfailingly put them first. This means: To operate with a customer focus.
Of course this is difficult at times. It requires some time, some thought, and some courage. The goals set by the pursuit of shareholder value more often than not are not supportive of long-term thinking or sustainability. For example, for a hardware manufacturer, using cheaper components and not really ensuring a device is going to last more than two years is (presumably) better short-term business than investing into products that will last decades. And anyway, getting anything repaired has gotten nearly impossible: “Ending is better than mending.” Are we there yet?
The idea of short-term maximizing “shareholder value” won’t get us far. Companies are ruining their customer relationships, not investing into R&D, optimizing everything for short-term revenue, and forcing their employees to yield better and even better results. And on the way, the ones who suffer are the enterprise’s employees ? and the customers. We all are customers ? actually, come to think of it, most of the time. Working in product definition and development, we only need to look at ourselves to see where we’re crossing the line, where we’re overdoing it, where we’re not focusing on the customers’ interests. This, I feel, is the point to sit back and rethink things.

What’s all this rant got to do with user experience and design? A lot. Industrial design in Europe in the late 19th century started out as a way to allow for mass production of high-quality goods, to provide the poor masses with products of a quality so far had been reserved to higher-income people ? a fundamentally socialist idea. People hoped the customers would have have a good, rich, pleasurable customer experience. The designers and the manufacturers thought the consumers would prefer their products to others that weren’t as carefully designed, as beautiful to behold ? and right they were: Great design lead to a good customer experience, and this created good business.

Now, a hundred years later, good industrial design isn’t a USP anymore. It’s become a given. But still there are huge differences between products even if the design, the outward appearance seems to be of a comparable quality. Companies need to spend enough time to perform vital product development activities; otherwise their products get shallow and unattractive. Customers withdraw their trust and leave, and the business caves in.

This is because consumers can feel it, can sense it when someone in product development has invested some time to thoroughly think things through, taking ? sometimes difficult ? decisions, looking at a product or a problem from their perspective, struggling to comprehend the customers’ way of thinking and working. It is highly appreciated and economically rewarded if a product or service solves a customers’ problem even before they knew it existed. If the customer feels respected and understood. And if using a product or service results in or is accompanied by a good, rich, rewarding user experience.

It is my appeal to all of us to listen to the customers and to ourselves and to understand what actually enriches their lives and creates a benefit for them. If we create products that tap into these insights, that help make people’s lives easier, richer, more enjoyable, we will create good business on the way. It might be the long-term perspective. It doesn’t come cheap. It won’t give high short-term growth rates. But it will result in customer trust and loyalty, resulting in sound, sustainable, stable business.

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