How to Make Your Business User-First.

An updated edition of Users, Not Customers for everyone grappling with transforming their company into a technology business.

Marissa Gluck
July 30, 2013

It’s much easier for companies to recognize the need to embrace digital then it is to succeed at it. In 2011, Huge CEO Aaron Shapiro wrote Users, Not Customers, which outlined a user-centric model for companies, one that places the interests of users—customers, employees, partners, influencers, etc.—at the center of the business. Since 2011, the urgency of making this change has only grown more pressing, and for the paperback edition, Aaron wrote a new afterword specifically addressing the reader question that came up most often since the book’s original release: How do I transform my company into a user-first digital enterprise?

The first step to bringing to life the strategies outlined in Users, Not Customers is recognizing the barriers to change. There are essentially two fundamental reasons people at a company may resist a user-first revolution–one is the obstacles rooted in business reality (particularly in large bureaucratic organizations) and second is human nature.

If a corporation is like a machine, designed to perform the tasks necessary to sustain its core business, then digital media needs to be inherent in that primary function. When it’s not, efforts to incorporate it into the production line often are rejected. Digital technology may be seen as something new and exciting, but it’s also scary and may be seen as too risky.

The second set of obstacles is embedded in human nature. New projects are likely to be seen by your boss and colleagues as a distraction at best, and as a risk to their jobs at worst. The reality is that most people are motivated by the compensation (and their bonuses in particular). Digital need to align with the company’s compensation scheme, and not viewed as a voluntary, optional part of the workday.

Overcoming Barriers from the Top Down.

Obviously, for digital initiatives to succeed, they need to have unequivocal support from executive leadership. According to Aaron, here’s what you need to do:

  • Paint a vision people can believe. Evangelize the transformation you envision but make sure you include a healthy dose of pragmatism. This means acknowledging hurdles and laying the steps to overcome them.
  • Allocate the budget. In order to succeed, you have to be prepared to designate appropriate resources, including money and time.
  • Hire key people in the right roles. This means hiring (if they don’t already reside in-house) user-centric managers, individuals with backgrounds in user-experience design and those with the technical expertise to bring ideas to life.
  • Provide training to existing employees. Provide educational opportunities to help individuals adjust to the change and inspire optimism.
  • Update bonuses and other incentives. It may sound simple, but align incentives with your new endeavor. Explain exactly what existing employees need to do to help achieve the company’s goal and reward them for reaching these targets.
  • Break or complement the machine. The organization itself must adjust to accommodate digital, which may mean that legacy functions such as marketing, customer service, and sales need to realign. If you’d like to move more gradually, consider the creation of a new group separate from the core business that can be integrated into the existing machine over time.

Overcoming Barriers from the Bottom Up.

Shifting to a user-first mentality obviously needs support from executive leadership, but even those not at the top play an essential role. The key to influencing leadership is to provide irrefutable proof that by focusing on users, the business will grow. It’s about demonstrating achievement–presenting a user-first success story. Here’s what Aaron says to consider when designing a user-first success story:

  • Business goals. This requires structuring your endeavor to support the business goals of the organization as a whole, not just your domain.
  • Friends. Design a project that will likely engage friends in your organization who would support your endeavor.
  • User context. Design a project that will answer the questions “Who will use the digital product or feature that my project makes? What user needs does it meet? Will it help users meet these needs more efficiently than is currently possible?”
  • Feasibility. Your endeavor must be executable, even if it means scaling it down. The goal is to produce a user-first success story, not necessarily a technological breakthrough.
  • Return on investment. Construct your program to move specific and measurable indicators of performance, such as an uptick in online sales, a decrease in operating costs over a defined period of time, or even an increase in visitors from a target market.
  • Scalability. Prepare to explain how your tactics and strategies can be applied across the organization. When you present to leadership, they should be able to see economies of scale growing from a single execution.

A user-first management model is becoming the defining difference between companies that excel in the increasingly digitally-driven economy and the companies that fade away. At its most simple, it’s a philosophy based upon using technology to make people happier.

Have your own user-first success story or a question? Let Aaron hear about it on Twitter at @amshap.

Read This.