Customers Transform Your Tomorrow

Customers Transform Your Tomorrow

Customers Transform Your Tomorrow

Kevin Budelmann, Peopledesign | March 5, 2020

Originally presented: November 5, 2019 (PDMA 2019 Annual Conference)
Read time: 6 minutes

Download the Handout

Era Evolution

In 2003 Eric Schmidt of Google stated that, “Every two days, we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization until 2003.” That was 17 years ago. This information revolution has spurred unprecedented change. Change on a global level, industry level, for companies, and for people — including your customers.

This change has given customers more choice than ever before as we have truly moved out of the industrial era and into the knowledge era. Taking a step back we can see on a macro level how our economies have evolved, starting with the craft era.

The Craft Era was marked by scarcity, craftspeople, and access. It was a one-to-one relationship between the customer and the maker. Everything was essentially custom as the user was so close to the maker. For the customer the question was, “Do I know anyone who makes shoes?”

The Industrial Era was focused on optimization, factories went up, and it was a race for achieving scale. Henry Ford’s famous quote sums up the launch of this era when he said, “A customer can have a car painted any color he wants as long as it’s black.” Gantt Charts and MBAs were formalized in the 1910s with product design following in the 1920s. The customer’s question wasn’t about options, it was simply, “Can I get shoes?”

Moving forward to the Knowledge Era the problem of scale has been solved and the complexity has shifted to choice. The idea of choice is perhaps best epitomized through Amazon, where you can buy anything from anywhere and have it on your doorstep in two days. While not every company can be Amazon, every customer now has raised expectations across the board.

Today, customers are increasingly empowered and concerned about choices and meaning. Innovation has become a discipline, agile software development is on the rise and strategic design becomes a practice for defining meaning. Meaning and experience have become the driving forces behind customer decisions.


Defining meaning is a two way street between company and customer. Companies often have a clear sense of their own goals, but are uncertain of their customers goals. It’s important to think about what perception does your customer have of your company? What do you want them to have? What do you want them to think, feel, and do? Organizations can’t answer these questions within their own walls. They have to take a human-centered approach and focus on people. Your customer is navigating a lot of complexity and your brand is not top of mind. In fact, you may cause more headaches than solve them. Mapping your customers broader complexity is the first step in defining meaning. How do they see themselves? What are their habits? What are they risking? What are their emotional drivers? Perhaps most importantly, how can you make things easier for them?

Again, these questions are hard to answer and are not often found in traditional market research. Marketing is concerned with the middle of the bell curve. The edges are often where seeds of user-centered innovation come from. Leading edge users will improvise because the product/service isn't doing enough yet - indicators of what makers might try. Laggards can't cope and have to compensate - leading to possible universal design concepts that may work even better for the middle. This is why traditional market research often falls flat.

Traditional market research tends to be broad and shallow, focusing on numbers. It presumes the past is an indicator of the future. While it is definitely a strong input, the past should not be the only indicator. Today’s economy requires agility as entire industries are being disrupted. In the industrial economy companies would “Do” something and look to marketing to “Say” something about it. This creates a ridgid organization that struggles to adapt to change. In an agile economy, the leaders have flipped this paradigm. They first determine what they will “Say” and then “Do” something to fulfill on that promise. This is why Nike doesn’t define its mission around shoes, but “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.” with the definition of an athlete as “If you have a body, you’re an athlete.” It’s important to remember Peter Drucker’s quote, “The purpose of a business is to create a customer.” It’s not simply to create a product or service.


Experiences are the second part of the equation. Everyday people have world-class innovative experiences for free. Whether it's the simplicity of Google search or the designed intentionality of an Apple store. Because these experiences are so ubiquitous customer expectations have risen across the board regardless of what industry you’re in. To cope with this demand new practices have emerged around customer experience, user experience, interaction design, journey maps, service design and more. Two cornerstones of these emergent practices are time and touchpoints.

The macro view on time is well-known, before, during, after; or past, present, future. Within that, however, are our remembered past and our imagined future. Our remembered past is not always accurate as our minds reshape our memories and we as humans have been proven to be poor predictors of the imagined future. For these reasons, it’s important to get multiple data points from different sources including traditional market research, then moving on to qualitative research which focuses more on user experiences and deeper insights. Trends within your industry and outside of it as well as tangent market benchmarks all help map a future state for your organization to move into.

Similarly, touchpoints can be broadly categorized into physical, digital, and personal touchpoints. Think about the self-check out at a grocery store. You’re in a physical space, moving a physical product through the digital scanner into a physical bag. As you interact with the register’s digital interface an employee asks you if you need help, a personal touchpoint. Throughout this common experience our minds are processing loads of sensory inputs and creating a feeling for the user that is on the spectrum of bad to good. Aligning these touchpoints in a seamless, intuitive, and intentional way is vital for brands to reinforce their desired perception goal.

Below the Surface

In order to achieve meaningful experiences organizations need to examine their own teams, tools, and processes as they change against the backdrop of evolving markets. Over time organizations naturally go through the different stages of the typical life cycle — startup, growth, maturity, and decline. Forward thinking organizations have the self awareness to understand where they are along that cycle and when they reach maturity they look to catch a new wave of growth. This concept was made popular in the book, Jumping the S-Curve by Paul Nunes and Time Breene. Depending on where you are at can shape your needs. Are you in a sad banana state (maturity and/or decline), or happy banana (startup and/or new growth)?

Some indicators of sad bananas might be flat-lined revenue, too many products or tactics, eroding market share, frequently changing vision, confusing messaging, or the classic trying to be all things to all people. Happy Bananas have strong internal alignment, are able to navigate big data and benchmark new metrics as they design for outcomes. No matter what state a company is in its important to think through its system of people. How do we connect the dots between the executives’ strategy, managers who oversee programs, artifacts created by designers, engineers and manufactures, to deliver a delightful experience for the customer. It’s not easy. Especially when guiding through change. Managing pace becomes imperative. If organizations move too slow they risk losing relevance in the marketplace. Moving too fast risks forgetting the user, overly fixating on the wrong problem, or competitor parody. To help manage flow it's helpful to think of a process as being a blend of “Think” and “Make”.

“Think”, in short, is about defining where to play. It requires getting outside of your own bubble and seeking new reference points. Should you be worried about competitors? Or maybe there are new threats like Google? It requires abstraction to think holistically and identify how the larger problem connects to the smaller ones. Then to frame the right problem and think in systems to solve for the human need.

“Make” defines how to win. It requires a fail fast mentality of expecting to iterate. It requires you to work outside of your discipline to seek diverse opinions. It requires you to value craft by celebrating constraints, quality, and beauty.

Both require you to see people. To understand their motives and desires behind the words, which often fall short. It also demands new skills in roles within your organization. People who are comfortable with collaboration and abstraction and agile enough to keep up with the evolving demands of the customer. And you should keep up. You have to. Businesses are created to solve a human needs, and if something doesn’t work for people it doesn’t work at all.

Download the accompanying worksheet:
Subscribe to our newsletter:

What did you think of this post?

Start a conversation with your peers by posting to our kHUB Discussion board! Browse trending posts and reply to other thought leaders OR start your own discussion by clicking "Post New Message."

Start a Discussion

If you don't have an account with us, create a guest account or become a member today and receive exclusive access to all PDMA member benefits. Please note that both members and non-members are welcome to participate in the kHUB.