Can businesses be both human-centred and profit-centred?
When it comes down to it, the profit motive will always undercut the best interests of people - right?
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I hate the term "CX". It stands for "Customer Experience", in case you don’t know. Even Wikipedia ⬆️ thinks it’s bullshit.
I can't speak to the precise genesis of the term, but here is how it played out in my mind:
A design agency proudly pitches their abilities to a large, corporate client - say a telecommunications company. "Human-centred design," the agency says, "offers organisations the ability to design for people's true needs, cultivating experiences around how they actually behave".
The telecom client listens the pitch, but they don’t see how this would actually make them money. They know that to sell their services they have to treat their customers like marks; it isn’t always in the telecom's interest to act in the best interests of people who use their services. Acting in the best interests of these people would mean avoiding unhelpful upselling, would mean not lying to them if a competitor had better service in their area, would mean being as open and upfront about billing changes as possible. “Thank you,” the telecom accordingly says to the agency, “but no”.
The design agency glumly slinks back to their offices. "What can we do?" they ask themselves. "Rebrand," they decide, "Rebrand Human-Centred Design as CX - Customer Experience - and reframe humans as potential or existing sources of profit.”
They justify it to themselves - they can still design good experiences for people, but these experiences will minimise the bad parts of the client’s offering and maximise the good parts. They know they are turning their backs on their core principles, but they have investors. Kids to feed. And they know that turning your average person into a customer is exactly what corporate executives will want to hear.
And so it goes. On and on throughout agency-land humans get rebranded as customers.
CX, in all its capitalist glory, completely undercuts the idea that people are people. Instead it plays with the ontology - people are no longer people first, they are primarily means for profit extraction. People are exemplified by the characteristics of what it means to be and to consider a customer; they are not exemplified by the characteristics of what it means to be and to consider a human. Those arguing for CX would say it’s meaningfully different because it deals with ‘multiple touchpoints’, as though Human-Centred Design (or service design) didn’t already.
It's a sad yet perhaps predictable result of the intersection of capitalism with theory.
Borne from the academic world, Human-Centred Design (HCD) was undercut and commodified by business. Initially and perhaps most notably by IDEO’s David Kelly, who set up his d.school at Stanford and repackaged HCD as a paint-by-the-numbers ‘design thinking’ approach that could be stamped on any project. The idea was that you could ‘empathise’ around user needs, then whip up solutions for them without doing any real research. Now, design thinking has a long, storied and very elucidating history, but the generic, facile rebranding by IDEO undercut or ignored the vital principles emerging from this history.
The Juul e-cigarette is a depressing example. Take this quote from one of the founders:
"A few years ago, I had the privilege of being a fellow at a place called the d.school on Stanford's campus. We did something very simple there. We taught a concept called design thinking. And design thinking is purely just empathy. You try to understand a person's needs. And then you test and see if you got it right by creating prototypes."
By 'empathising' the founders concluded that cigarette smokers didn't want to smell and wanted more, fun flavours. Their designers latched onto to this, creating a sexy e-cigarette sans cigarette smell and bursting with new flavours.
Of course, 'empathising' with cigarette smokers isn’t intrinsically a moral good - you could empathise with anyone, a Nazi, a pedophile, a rapist. It doesn’t make actions stemming from your empathy morally good, let alone neutral. Truly caring about humans, working with an empathetic, compassionate and empowering mindset would engender a desire to help eliminate smokers’ addiction, not replace it, exacerbate it, or knowingly propagate it to teenagers. Yet this is how Juul's founders actualised their human-centred design approach. They reconfigured HCD as a sort of CX that preyed on customers desires and issues rather than working to help empower them to address them.
Bastardised versions of human-centred design - CX - do not treat humans as humans. In CX or IDEO’s design thinking, your ‘empathy’ allows you to justify nearly any action enables customer-appropriate behaviour - in this way your service is always ‘good’ for these human-customers, and moreover by ‘empathising’ you feel as though you’ve gained some moral right to decide that this is ‘good’ for them.
This is not why most people entered the field of HCD - and I would argue, technology in general. We thought we were defenders of people - helping and empowering the person - not helping and empowering the business. We saw ourselves as defenders of the user - the human - unsullied by commercial concerns.
A quote from Jesse James Garrett, a pioneer in Human-Centred Design (and User Experience, the professionalised yet still human-centred version of HCD), notes how this perhaps was never the case:
"We thought we were winning hearts and minds, but we were really setting ourselves up for exploitation, as businesses cherry-picked the bits of UX most compatible with their existing agendas and eschewed the parts that might lead to uncomfortable questions that could influence more than the color of a button on a screen."
This has created a despondency among designers. Can we not be human-centred, purely and truly? Does the human always become the customer? Does the profit motive always undercut the human-centredness when it comes down to it?
Perhaps it is impossible to truly and indisputably be human-centred while being part of a larger whole that is profit - or business (largely synonymous with profit) - centred. And trying to make businesses more human-centred seems to result in a paradox.
Let's say you wanted to change a business to advocate for the firmly ontologically human end-user and thus be less bound by business objectives. Your first step would be to 'speak' business and understand business objectives to get a ‘seat at the table’ in order for senior executives to believe that you align with their goals.
So, only by becoming more business-centred could you make businesses more human-centred. But by becoming more business-centred you naturally become less human-centred, in ways that I described previously - you see customers and profit, not humans and human needs.
So then, how can being more business-centred make you more human-centred? It can't. Unless you actively work to be in business to change what it means to conduct and be a business. That is, you are able to create shifts that diverge ontologically and practically from the customer mindset.
This is perhaps possible, though your control is limited to that which you have influence over.
The skill, I think, comes in navigating specific points within areas that you oversee. There are certain inflection points - features or changes in products and services where there are clear instances of a product being worse or better for a human.
Say you are developing a product that has a limited free trial for users. You are deciding what will happen when the trial ends - you could roll users over to a paid plan without letting them know (say you already have their bank details) or you could notify them that their plan will end and give them options for their next course of action.
I'd call this a 'contested feature' because it is contested by two mutually exclusive goals - the human and the business. Generally, the business wins.
It's here, in the Zone of Human & Business Goals misalignment that a human-centred designer (or human-centred technologist or product owner or what have you) would need to make their stand and fight for value for the human. It's here where the battlefield is drawn. Certainly not all features sit here - but many do.
The question is - do we have the scruples to stand our ground here? Can we stand up against the business goals and say ‘doing this may take away from profit but is something we should do’?
I would argue that this is the most important space to occupy. While design and development generally require process-driven skillsets, navigating Zones of Human and Business Goals Misalignment requires ethical and ontological skillsets.
And it truly is much easier to start from an ontological base - which is why calling it human-centred - not customer-centred - is vital. We have to occupy a 'seat at the table' - but the seat should be a seat we bring, not one of the executives’ seat.
In the above trial-ending example, the CXer would almost certainly not alert the user to the subscription change as it would limit the ontological function of the customer - profit production. The CXer would probably still call this fulfilling the human goal because the human has been ontologically reconceptualised as a customer - they are here to generate profit. So it’s vital for us to occupy the ontological foundations and identify how that which is built upon it merge and diverge with business goals.
And we can certainly be upfront with executives, asking “what will we do when business and human-centred goals diverge?” We can show them the graphic above.
Of course, not all features are in the Zone of Human & Business Goals Misalignment. There are non zero-sum features that are just plain good for the user - in the Zone of Human & Business Goal Alignment - which can go over and above what is offered. Some of these features don’t even necessarily cost more in time or resource.
And let’s not forget that legislation has and will come into play that buoys the necessity of being human-centred. For example, in Europe the GDPR requires that meaningful information about the logic of automated (AI) decision-making is made available to those who are affected by it if it has 'legal or similarly significant effect' on them.
Plus, it can be argued that acting for the human good will, in the long run, help with profit. In his book Future Ethics Cennydd Bowles has some thoughts on what organisations who act with human’s best interest benefit from:
Responsible companies will garner loyalty and attract new customers through brand reputation, often via cheap word of mouth. Many customers are also happy to pay more for sustainable goods and services, increasing margins. Ethical product development can stave off regulatory fines and civil lawsuits, and avoids the brand toxicity and expensive PR bills that can result from moral mistakes. There might also be employment savings; an ethical company is likely to retain its staff better and suffer less burn-out. Finally, proper moral conduct reduces the risk of overbearing regulation, embarrassing leaks from disgruntled employees, and customer rejection of unpopular decisions.
Will these be relevant or true for every business? Probably not. But they are helpful illustrations when key battles need to be won.
So, can businesses be both human-centred and business-centred?
Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t think there is a single answer. It seems in some circumstances, in some conditions this can be true, given the right people thinking the right ways at the right times. Are these conditions scalable? Probably not. Can they be true for every business in every circumstance? Certainly not.
But. This is where other activities - more systematic approaches - like transition design or systems design - come into play. And obviously those tiny other things we do in the world - politics, culture, art.
Outside of that, in our small, technological area of the world (that admittedly has an outsize impact) there are perhaps changes we can make to tell the profit motive to ever so gently fuck off. Cause it’s people, the human, that are more important.