Understanding and Influencing the User Experience

“You think that because you understand ‘one’ that you must therefore understand ‘two’ because one and one makes two. But you forget that you must also understand ‘and.’” - Sufi Teaching Story

A well-known customer satisfaction report came out the week I started a job at a large company. The report had my new employer listed at the bottom for customer satisfaction of their mobile app (amongst other areas). The internal discussion was full of disbelief, because a competitor was using the same mobile solution and they had ranked much higher.

As an outsider I saw what they didn’t see. The company's business practices negatively biased their customer’s opinion of them in areas that were not related in obvious ways. That in a nutshell is systems thinking. They could redesign that mobile app in a vacuum again and again, and customer satisfaction will not improve until company conducts business in a way that doesn’t produce a negative halo effect.

Window into the Company

Many people confuse user experience to mean the thing produced by the UX team. It’s not quite that simple. The user experience is a window into the company that produces it. I often joke with my wife that I can tell the culture of a company by using their website and talking with their customer service people.

The experience a company produces often shows the level of its collaboration or dysfunction. It can also show political and organizational boundaries when one area owns the marketing site, another owns the servicing sites, and yet another department owns the customer service and help desks. However, none of the departments work together to produce a cohesive experience.

“No product is an island. A product is more than the product. It is a cohesive, integrated set of experiences. Think through all of the stages of a product or service - from initial intentions through final reflections, from first usage to help, service, and maintenance. Make them all work together seamlessly. That's systems thinking.” - Donald A. Norman

The UX team is not solely responsible for providing a positive experience to our customers. It also falls to the Sales and Marketing teams, Customer Service, Technical Support, Product Development, IT, Legal, Security and so on. The user experience requires a holistic approach to produce products and services that are intentionally designed to provide a positive experience for your customers.

Notice how I said intentionally designed? That’s because the experience exists regardless of whether or not it is designed with intent. Have you ever been annoyed at the cable company because of poor picture quality, a surprise rate increase or a billing mistake? I doubt the cable company intentionally designed that experience. You may love 90% of what a company provides, but that 10% is what causes people to leave after being frustrated and disappointed.

Be prepared for disappointed customers if you only invest in the experience design of a few web applications, and allow serendipity to come to the rescue for the remaining functions of your company.

The User Experience Emerges

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has a standard for the Ergonomics of Human System Interaction (ISO 9241-210) and it defines user experience as follows:

“a person's perceptions and responses resulting from the use and/or anticipated use of a product, system or service." 

All things considered that’s a pretty good definition of user experience. The part I want to expand on is the reference to systems, because that is where I believe has the most opportunity for improving user experience. User experience is often given such a narrow focus that it becomes irrelevant. When you think in systems, you start to understand how the relationship of its parts affect the whole.

Here’s a video of Peter Senge, A senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management explaining systems thinking:


I’m not here to teach systems thinking; I am still learning about it myself. Instead, my hope is to expose more people to systems thinking as a way to understand the environment in which they work and try to achieve their goals. I want to illuminate the dynamic in which a company is well meaning, but still delivers negative or poor experiences to their customers.

Systems thinking requires you to understand the relationships between elements as strongly as the elements themselves. This is something that does not happen in many companies today. The problem with that approach is the relationship between elements is what actually produces the outcomes. 

The relationships between the elements of a system create feedback loops. In one sense, feedback loops are how we learn. Imagine you have never seen a light switch before. You enter a room and it is apparent that you can interact with the switch. So you flip the switch up and the light above you comes on. You flip the switch down and the light goes off. You’ve just closed the feedback loop and learned that the switch controls the light. It was easy to learn, because the feedback is immediate. You, the light, and the switch are elements of a simple system.

Now imagine yourself at work. You flip a switch in a first floor office, and it turns on a light in a closet on the fifth floor. You have no idea what the light switch does, and some person on the fifth floor is left wondering why the closet light turns on and off. In other word, the feedback loop never gets closed. This analogy highlights the same dynamic that caused my new colleagues to be confused as to why their mobile app’s customer satisfaction ranked so low.

In systems thinking there are two kinds of feedback loops:

  1. Reinforcing loops: encourage a system to continue in the direction it’s currently heading. This could a positive direction, which is called a virtuous cycle, or it could be a negative direction which is called a vicious cycle.
  2. Balancing loops: encourage a system to maintain stability. Balancing loops can maintain a system to be in either positive or negative states.

Much of my UX design experience has been working in insurance and finance. Two common concerns of these industries are security and regulation compliance. These two concerns tend to have a lot influence over the experience companies deliver, and can act as balancing loops. This means that any attempted improvement of the user experience that touches an area influenced by those two concerns are likely to be nullified or downright blocked. Companies that provide positive experiences in these industries have processes that acknowledge the importance of security and regulation compliance, but do not let them determine the experience delivered.

“A bad system will beat a good person every time” - W. Edwards Deming

Another concept of systems thinking is emergence. When a system emerges from the interaction of elements, it has properties that individual elements do not exhibit. When you think in those terms, you realize the user experience is like a system that emerges from the interaction between the customer and a collection of touch points that makes up a product or service (your company). From the customer’s perspective that includes everything from researching, shopping, and deciding on what to purchase or utilize, to the actual use of the product or service.

The smaller the company and simpler the product or service, the easier it is to produce a positive experience. Like I said earlier, experience is a window into a company that exposes dysfunction, internal politics, and quite frankly lack of leadership. It’s orders of magnitude easier for a 10 employee startup with a flat organization and a singular vision to produce a positive, holistic experience than it is for a 10,000 employee company with hundreds of egos, dozens of products, government regulations, and decades of legacy technology to worry about. 

“A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.” - John Gall

This is system dynamics. If the user experience emerges from a collection of touch points, then it is easier to produce a positive experience in a simple system than it is with a complex system that is terrible at learning by closing feedback loops. 

The Problem with Problems

We all have an assumption that if we are being presented with a problem to solve, someone has given it careful consideration and decided that your functional ability can provide the best solution. I’m going out on a limb to say most companies do not do this. 

Each functional area of a company has unique knowledge and the skills to support itself. When you present a problem, they will likely fall into a cognitive trap called “the Law of the Instrument” sometimes known as Maslow’s hammer. A popular rephrasing of this concept is: when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. That means if you present the problem to Marketing, they will give you a marketing solution. Present the problem to IT and you will get a technology solution. This also happens to designers who solve every problem with wireframes or some other design deliverable.

People tend to be poor system thinkers. You present them with a problem and their biases along with an inability to see causal relationships end up providing superficial solutions. This is similar to a doctor who only treats the symptoms and not the illness. They often look at easy-to-identify reasons for events happening around them, and make judgments without trying to understand the underlying causes. It’s easier to make judgments because it “feels right” rather than being thorough. Sounds simple, but problems are rarely explored with enough rigor to be understood.     

Under the Influence of User Experience

You are asked to make it intuitive or easy-to-use, then not given access to users. You are told the user experience is your responsibility, but in reality that means you only exist to feed the Agile development machine. When you understand what the user experience truly refers to, it is frustrating to be placed in a position to have almost no influence to affect it. 

A highly competent and well-meaning UX team is only as effective as the reach of their influence. Unfortunately, for most UX teams, their reach rarely exceeds their manager. A person who most likely is a functional manager of another specialized area such as Development or Marketing. When delivering a positive experience depends on the entire company working in unison to a singular vision, a locally optimized UX team in an otherwise dysfunctional company is rendered useless.

"Business and human endeavors are systems...we tend to focus on snapshots of isolated parts of the system. And wonder why our deepest problems never get solved." - Peter Senge

As a UX designer I don’t make anything the customer uses. I can only influence what does get made. We need to embrace that idea. The ability to influence without authority is one of the most important skills a designer can learn.

Being part of a UX team gives you the ability to see across silos. It also gives you access to managers and other influencers in the company. Work with them to discover problems where you can positively affect the outcome by leveraging your user experience skills. Think of it like farming; you are planting seeds that will eventually allow you cultivate influential, challenging, and rewarding work. You will learn to appreciate the quote: “it's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission,” because no one is going to ask you to do this.


When you figure out user experience is the outcome and not a process, you can only improve the outcome by managing the system. If you are effective as a UX practitioner, you are already aware that you need to use collaboration as a tool to enable positive experiences for your users. The facilitation of collaboration is a skill required to improve the user experience. This is especially true in large and conservative companies.

Providing a positive experience for your customers requires silo-destroying collaboration between departments that barely know each other exist. Collaboration can help create positive reinforcing feedback loops within your company. Collaboration leads to shared understanding, which builds relationships. Relationships build trust, and trust is the foundation on which positive experiences can be built. That level of collaboration doesn't happen accidentally, and it is painfully absent in the companies that need it most. 

Design Thinking and other collaboration methods can help you utilize cross-functional teams to explore the problems and if necessary explore potential solutions. You must plan and organize sessions that produce results that are more than the sum of their participants. That means giving everyone an equal footing on the team regardless of their position within the organization. Allowing quiet colleagues, to contribute in a way that doesn’t get drowned out by the boisterous. Recognize the biases people come to the table with, and nullify them. Everyone has important tacit knowledge, but they are not aware how they can contribute to the problems being tackled.

This reimagined user experience role acts as a facilitator bringing disparate areas of the company together for the purpose of solving business and customer problems. Anyone can be a designer, a notion that has been gaining momentum lately. You must have a holistic understanding of the relationships between the customer and your company. Then you must act with intention to make positive improvements.

If you think about design in that way, your UX team has just grown to the size of the company. It is up to you to show your colleagues how to act with intention, instead of working in silos and protecting their turf.

Thanks for reading. Please let me know If you like (or hate) this article. If this topic interests you, please connect with me on LinkedIn or here on my website.


Further Reading

Systems Thinking

Design Thinking