- Matthew Doty
Updated: Jan 8, 2022
A Framework for Helping Organizations, Teams & Individuals Understand, Embrace & Sustain the Practice of Experience Design (Watch Video).
Picture this: You've been hired to build the first Experience Design (XD) practice for a large, established brand that has been providing high-end products and services to its customers for nearly 20 years. After almost a year into your new gig, you've hired some stellar talent and helped the company kick-off a ground-breaking effort to redefine itself across the digital landscape. You and your team are establishing collaborative partnerships with corporate leaders, decision-makers, and influencers. Everyone is excited about taking a more human-centered approach and doing things right.
Yet, when it comes to the actual work of placing the people you're designing for at the center of attention throughout the process, well... people are struggling. Specifically, the organization is struggling to do what it takes to enable and sustain the practice of Experience Design. As a result, your design team is struggling to bring the full value of a human-centered approach to bear. Emotions are high, stakes are high, and opinions differ drastically!
Are you with me so far? Well, it may or may not surprise you to learn that this was the actual situation I was facing quite a few years ago when the idea for "ABCD... XD" first occurred to me.
I was in bed one night, unable to sleep after a particularly difficult day, trying to work out two fundamental questions:
How did we get here?
How do we get through this?
I puzzled over these questions (until my "puzzler was sore"), as my thoughts coalesced around the following ideas...
"If only there was some way I could help the organization become more aware of what Experience Design is and what it can do for them, then it might not be so hard to inspire them toward better decisions."
"If I could get my team and the organization to understand, embrace, master and stay grounded in the basics of Experience Design, then our path forward would be clearer."
"I need to figure out how to help us all recognize and make the changes necessary to enable and sustain the practice of Experience Design so my team can bring more of the benefits of a human-centered approach to bear."
"We need to figure out a way to discipline ourselves so our actions and decisions remain consistent with the philosophy and process of Experience Design."
And, because I'm a huge nerd, I got out of bed, grabbed my sketchbook and hammered out the initial framework I now call ABCD... XD. Since then, I've been using variations of the ABCD... XD framework to help organizations, teams & individuals understand, embrace and sustain the practice of Experience Design.
The word awareness is deceptively simple! Drop it in a meeting (e.g., "We need to raise awareness..."), and you'll undoubtedly get near-universal head nods. Dig a little deeper, however, and you'll discover a plethora of variations in what everyone believes awareness means and involves.
In the context of ABCD... XD, awareness refers to how well our organizations understand and believe what Experience Design is and what Experience Design can actually do.
What is Experience Design?
This quote from a highly influential toy collection/cartoon from my youth is spot on! If you find yourself in a situation similar to the one I describe above, take some time and ask yourself how well your leaders, decision-makers and influencers actually grasp what XD is. Make sure you're not jumping to an emotional answer on this. Look for evidence and honestly assess your situation and make sure to include yourself. If you discover significant gaps, then you know where to start.
I've had the most success describing Experience Design in the following ways:
XD refers to intentional actions taken to increase the quality of the interactions people have with products, services, technology, brands, etc.
XD is also a professional discipline that is founded on the principles and techniques of Human-Centered Design.
Usually by explaining XD in these terms, I find it helpful to also describe Human-Centered Design (HCD) like this:
HCD is an empathy-driven philosophy and a rigorous discipline that puts the people we're designing for at the center of attention as we create products, services and technology
I've seen these descriptions resonate with most of my teams and our clients in a way that generates the right questions and inspires productive dialog.
What can Experience Design Actually Do?
Experience Design, when done well, has numerous benefits! I've ruffled no shortage of feathers by explaining that good XD can...
Reduce the time it takes to get products, services and technology to market
Reduce the overall cost of producing products, services and technology
Lead to a strong base of happy, loyal and vocal advocates of the products, services and technologies we design and deliver
When our organizations understand what Experience Design is and believe what Experience Design can actually do, conversations are easier to have and decisions are easier to make.
In my relatively brief experience on this planet, I've observed an interesting phenomenon about us humans: We tend to believe that the solution to our problems always lies in some complex, new or otherwise not-currently-understood philosophy, process or method. This is true for some of our problems, but I've personally discovered that getting back to basics holds the key to most of my solutions.
Those of you who know me understand that I really don't follow any professional sports. That said, there is an important lesson to be learned from former Green Bay Packers coach, Vince Lombardi.
The quote here reflects coach Lombardi's obsession with the fundamentals. As he prepared his team at the beginning of each season, he would begin with an exhaustive review of the basics. This resulted in his team being the best at things everyone else took for granted.
The same is true for Experience Design!
You, your team and your organization will realize more of the benefits of taking a human-centered approach if you can master and consistently apply the basics of Experience Design.
Experience Designers have two core objectives:
Understand, empathize with and advocate for the people they are designing for
Design experiences that balance human-needs against competing objectives (e.g., business, technical, operational, creative, brand, etc.)
In order to fulfill the two basic objectives listed above, Experience Designers need to be able to engage in 3 basic activities:
Design Research - Observing people and understanding their needs, wants, expectations and perceptions.
Experience Strategy - Synthesizing and distilling facts into meaningful stories and actionable recommendations.
Experience Modeling - Envisioning, designing & prototyping experiences that resonate with the target audience and inspire project sponsors, leaders & teams to unite in a common vision.
When hiring XD talent, you will want to look for someone who thinks with both sides of their brain. Someone who balances...
Art with analysis,
Passion with pragmatism; and
Dreams with details
Like all professionals, XD practitioners have a set of situational essentials that must be true in order to realize the full value of taking a human-centered approach. Compromising any of the following principles will significantly diminish the impact XD practitioners can have:
Access to People/Data - You cannot say that you are human-centered unless you have regular and direct access to the humans you are designing for and data they are generating.
Sustained Focus - XD is an iterative, thinking profession. It's not uncommon for an experience designer to spend hours or even days in their efforts to solve a seemingly small but significant problem.
Collaborative Relationships - The work of Experience Design cannot be done effectively in a vacuum. XD professionals need regular access to project sponsors, leaders and teams.
A Seat at the Table - XD professionals must have a voice in decisions that impact their work. I've seen too many well-intentioned project sponsors, leaders and teams operate on their own assumptions of what Experience Designers need to be successful. This must be actively checked and avoided.
The basics of Experience Design are powerful tools in realizing all of the benefits that a human-centered approach promises. I have found that regular review and re-grounding myself, my teams and everyone I work with in these basics is not just a good idea but a critical component to success.
One of my favorite quotes about change comes from the movie Dune (the 1984 screen adaptation of Frank Herbert's epic novel of the same name). Yes, I'm kind of a sci-fi nerd.
In the story, a royal family must relocate from their lush, vibrant planet to a harsh desert planet. In commenting on how much he'll miss his old planet, the father of this family teaches is his son the valuable lesson illustrated by this quote.
I'm a firm believer that for all of us, our teams and our organizations, the XD "sleeper must awaken" in some way, shape or form. This inevitably requires change. I've discovered 3 important keys to making sure we make the right changes in the most effective ways.
1: Identify the Change
Organizations, teams and individuals all have different changes in mind when it comes to Experience Design. Below, I've listed some of the more common examples I've encountered in my career. As you review these, look for those that resonate most with your situation.
Common XD changes include but are not limited to:
Learning more about XD (e.g., awareness)
Learning how to do specific XD techniques
Hiring XD talent
Implementing human-centered thinking
Changing your culture or process to become more human-centered
Establishing an XD practice, team or department
Maturing your XD capabilities
No matter what change you're trying to make, getting clear on what the specific change is will save you a lot of pain as you try to make the change.
2: Pinpoint the Critical Behaviors Needed to Realize the Change
In order to change anything, you have to identify what I call "critical behaviors." Critical behaviors are small, simple actions that have a high impact and actually produce your desired results. An example might help.
The critical behaviors for moving one side of this seesaw (who else misses these?) up and the other down include:
- The person on the left leans back
- The person on the right leans forward
- The person on the right gets off
These are all small, simple actions that have a high impact and actually produce the desired results.
It's worth noting that even though critical behaviors are small and simple, they are not always easy. Here's another, somewhat emotionally charged example that helps illustrate this point.
For most of us, the critical behaviors for achieving and maintaining a healthy weight are simple to understand:
Regularly consume a diet of healthy food in appropriate amounts
Regularly engage in a variety of physical activities that build strength, endurance and flexibility
However, as one who regularly looks in the mirror and weighs himself, I can emphatically testify that consistently engaging in these critical behaviors is not easy!
Experience the Critical Behaviors
Once you, your team and your organization have identified and aligned on what you want to change and pinpointed the critical behaviors you need to engage in, then it's time to experience those behaviors.
The reason I say "experience" the behaviors is articulated quite well by this quote from Will Rogers. The best way for us to learn something is through direct experience with it. By directly experiencing the critical behaviors, we get to see first-hand outcomes of behaving in new ways. Nothing is a better teacher in our attempts to change.
That said, if you or others in your organization can't gain direct experience with the critical behaviors then you need to give yourselves something called vicarious experience with the critical behaviors
You can experience critical behaviors vicariously by observing others who engage in the critical behaviors and the outcomes that result. For example, if you observe someone you trust or admire design an amazing experience for their customers and save a ton of money as a result, you are more likely to discover that you want the same result and you will subsequently start doing what it takes to design better experiences.
While not as effective, vicarious experience is a powerful teacher that helps persuade us to behave differently. For more of the science behind vicarious experiences, this link is a good starting point.
Now that you're aware of what XD is and what it can do, you understand and are committed to mastering the basics, and you are changing what needs to be changed, you need one last element in place. To make sure that the change sticks and that you are consistently achieving what you set out to achieve, you need discipline.
Discipline Requires Work
We all want to minimize our costs and maximize our benefits. It is a natural, healthy human tendency to avoid stress and pain. It is admirable to strive to be as efficient as we possibly can. At the same time, Thomas Edison makes an important point with this quote.
As you seek to build your XD capabilities and realize more of the benefits of a human-centered approach, you can't forget that change requires discipline and discipline requires work... hard, persistent work.
Discipline Requires Accountability
While the tattoo artist pictured here is probably working very hard at his job, he's not achieving the desired results. Hard, persistent work will help ensure that your changes stick but you also need something else to ensure that you are consistently achieving what you set out to do. That "something else" is accountability.
It's a common mistake to focus solely on whether or not you're engaging in the critical behaviors you've identified. This is because the behaviors themselves are often easier to measure and track than the actual results you are trying to achieve. Accountability helps you "keep your eyes on the prize" so to speak and achieve the necessary level of quality in your work.
There are three major sources of accountability when it comes to designing great experiences:
Yourself - You have to really want to make the change. It's helpful to document the specific things you need to do both short and long term. Make it all visible & keep track of your progress. Involve others to help keep you honest.
Your Team - Project sponsors, leaders and teams should identify, align on and document the specific things you need to do. Decide on and document rules for holding one another accountable. Establish regular checkpoints. Make goals and progress visible. Get really good at crucial conversations.
The People You Are Designing For - Observe to understand. Test assumptions and ideas early and often. Take feedback seriously. Change and iterate.
Discipline is, hands down, the most difficult aspect of the ABCD... XD framework, because we are essentially re-training our hearts and minds to feel, believe and think differently. This takes time! Be patient with yourself, your team and your organization as you will all change at different rates.
This framework has come a long way since that first sleepless night many years ago. For almost 20 years, I've been using variations of the ABCD...XD framework to help organizations, teams & individuals embrace the power of Human-Centered Design. Now, I lead XD Go as we apply the principles of the ABCD... XD framework in all of our services to help our clients...
Become more aware of what Experience Design is and what it can do for them
Understand, embrace, master and stay grounded in the basics of XD
Recognize and make the changes necessary to enable and sustain the practice of Experience Design
Figure out ways to discipline themselves in new, human-centered ways of working
I'd love to know if the ideas shared in this post are helpful for you, so, please like, comment and share! Also, if you'd like XD Go to help you, your team or your organization develop stronger XD capabilities, drop us a line!
I recently presented the ABCD-XD Framework at a virtual UX Meetup.