A Tale of UX Heresy: User-Centric vs. Business-Centric Design

Dear Reader,

Today, I want to tell you a tale of two worldviews. It’s a story of how my user-centric worldview of design was challenged at the age of 30.

A User-Centric Design Worldview

“I fight for users!”

It’s what my Twitter bio said at one point. It’s as if there was an epic battle brewing between robots and humans. Apparently, I needed to devote my 140-character bio to my allegiance to humans.

“Solve customer problems, and everything else will follow!” …would have been my bumper sticker.

That made me good at designing stuff that users would like, but surprisingly, it didn’t make me very good at designing the things my company was asking for.

Whenever a user issue came up, I wanted to fix it right away because the user need was so clear. But the business always had other priorities.

That was frustrating for the UX team because we talked to users a lot, and we knew exactly which parts of the user journey were causing issues...yet we were asked to work on something different.

Why were we hiring so many marketers when we never had enough engineers to address our user problems? As the marketing team swelled, the product team drowned.

My CEO at the time was struggling to keep up with the board’s financial expectations. He was still traumatized by a recent round of layoffs. I’m sure his nightmares were about being forced to do it again.

The UX Team’s nightmares were about being bored at work. We were not dealing with the same pressures.

The company didn’t see the user problems as we saw them.

Were they stupid? The truth was that we had two different world views.

This is how I saw things at the time, with the user at the center of everything. Sadly, this is just one side of the story:

A Business-Centric Worldview

WARNING: If you only hold the user-centric view of design, the following may feel like UX heresy:

I hate to break it to you, but the business doesn’t revolve around users' needs. The user is only one of many competing factors.

Business stakeholders care more about the business's success than your user's happy path.

Businesses regularly pivot to serve new customers with new products when the user isn’t working for them. And in hard times, it’s the business that everyone protects, not the customer.

This is going to hurt so I'll make it quick.

Your users are often users of your competitors as well. They have a job they need you to do.

Your users don't reciprocate your devotion to them. They’re not loyal, and a million tech companies compete for their attention.

It’s not that you have to give up your user-centric lens. It's a precious asset for your career, and it can be a helpful tool even in the board room.

But you must understand the business-centric lens if you want to get stuff done for the user.

Thinking back, I wish the UX team better understood the business-centric view. It wouldn't have been heresy, just grown-up UX.

We could have worked on the UX improvements we wanted while making the rest of the business happy. We could have had a say in deciding what to do and what not to do, genuinely serving as advocates of the users AND the business.

We could have used a strategic lens to understand both and put UX in the board room...or beyond.

If that’s something you’re interested in, take this 5-day email short course on UX strategy→

Until next week!

Jeff Humble
Designer & Co-Founder
The Fountain Institute

P.S. Last night we hosted an outstanding design talk from Lex Gillon about User Research in Sex Tech. Watch the recording here.

P.P.S. RSVP to our next FREE event, How to Design a UX Strategy on June 8th!

The Fountain Institute

The Fountain Institute is an independent online school that teaches advanced UX & product skills.

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