Of the six disciplines in Forrester’s customer experience maturity model, design is probably the least understood. It’s is not taught in most business schools (although this is starting to change at institutions like Stanford and the University of Toronto). It’s also not widely practiced in most companies outside of specialized groups that focus on digital touchpoints. And so it remains a mystery to most business people. That’s a shame, because design is an incredibly valuable business tool — and it’s accessible to just about anyone in any organization.

That’s why I wanted to take time this week to answer some of the questions that I’m frequently asked about customer experience design. In fact, all of the following are exact questions that I’ve received from Forrester clients over the past year.

What exactly is this design thing again?

Design is both a process and a mindset

Let’s talk about the process part first. Designers typically follow a common set of steps when trying to solve a problem: research that helps them uncover deep emotional insights about people’s wants and needs, analysis that helps them identify the real problems and issues, ideation of dozens (or hundreds) of possible solutions, prototyping that helps them bring those ideas to life in tangible ways, and testing that helps them evaluate the proposed prototypes and solutions. Designers don’t go thought this process once — they iterate this process several times in order to learn from their prototypes and refine their solutions.

In addition to being a set of steps, design is also a mindset. In other words, the design process I just described embodies several assumptions and beliefs that run counter to traditional business thinking. The most significant of these is the practice of putting people at the center of the process through ethnographic research and the development of empathy. (It’s no accident that CX design is commonly referred to as “human-centered design.”) Also key to design is the recognition that you don’t immediately know the answer to the problem at hand — and, even scarier, that you don’t even understand the problem itself. (You can read more about this in my post “Why It Takes Guts To Do Human-Centered Design.”) One of my favorite deviations from traditional business problem solving is design’s practice of actively involving customers, employees, and partners in the process. Designers call this co-creation, and it’s something I’ve also written about frequently.

In my company, we often jump right to an engineering a solution before we’ve fully determined what we want for a product. How can we stay focused on understanding the problem before we move onto developing solutions?

When I see teams headed straight for a predetermined solution, I simply interject questions like, “Hang on, do we really feel like we understand the root issue here?” or “What's the real problem we’re trying to solve?” People recognize these as valid questions, and because we all want to look smart in front of our peers and bosses, these questions simply shift the problem solving process from the solution (and its features) to the problem itself.

I often take a more direct approach with our clients and say, “This sounds like you're trying to solve the problem from your perspective. Do you really understand your customers’ problems and motivations from THEIR perspective?”  At that point, the group often admits that they don’t, and they embark on some sort of in-depth customer research to find out.

Do you think the word “design” makes it harder for this type of thinking to be seen as a strategic process that drives the business forward?

Unfortunately, yes.  To those unfamiliar with it, design is often seen just as window dressing. But like it or not, what we’re talking about is in fact design.  It’s an established field that’s got a robust history, tools, methodologies, and a community of practitioners – just like accounting and IT. So, for the foreseeable future, we’re stuck with the term.

Can you share an example of how customer experience design works in real life?

We’ve got lots of examples of this. Companies ranging from Fidelity Investments to Southern Water (a utility company in the UK) to Waste Management (yes, the garbage collection company) continually leverage design as a powerful strategic weapon. But rather than repeat what I’ve written about in other blog posts, I’ll point you to a case study about how the Mayo Clinic used iterative prototyping and testing to improve its outpatient experience.

How can we find design experts to help us thru the process? Does Forrester do this?

Forrester can help you learn about and adopt design processes and mindsets through inquiries, workshops, and short-term consulting engagements. We also have relationships with top design consultancies around the globe and can recommend design partners for more extended, hands-on work. Just shoot us a note!

If your organization has a great story to tell about the customer experience design work you’ve done, please enter to win one to Forrester’s 2013 Outside In awards. The 2013 nomination forms are available on our Outside In Awards web page, and nominations are due by 5:00 p.m. ET on May 3rd.