Politics are the most important design tool in CX (whether you like it or not)
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Politics are the most important design tool in CX (whether you like it or not)

April 8, 2019

Mark Micheli

Politics are the study of power and power structures — and failing to master them is the reason customer experience designers often fall short.

Designers have changed considerably in the last two decades. Once viewed by organizations as “creatives” who need to be managed – today, the script has flipped. Increasingly, design is doing the managing — using design thinking to bust organizational silos, identify problems worth solving, and inspire teams to work in concert to create better experiences that drive business.

As a result, designers — and their designs — are less about building tangible objects and more about wrangling intangible organizational complexities. And that means they increasingly need to be gifted not just in the craft of design, but the art of politics.

“Oh, gross!” you might think. “I hate politics!”

Ah, so you’ve also read the news? Believe me, as a (recovering) political journalist, I get the reaction. But I’ve learned powerful customer experience design and mastery of organizational politics come from the same toolkit  – far more than any self-respecting designer cares to (or perhaps should…) admit.

Pioneering designer and computer scientist Herb Simon said, “everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” Not only does that describe every designer — it describes every politician. And, if you’ve ever gotten anything done in an organization…I’ve got news for you: you’re both.

Whether you like it or not design is, inherently, a political act. A craft dedicated to idealistically challenging the status quo and organizing people to create something better. Rather than seeing “politics” as a dirty word, designers need to embrace it as one of their foundational tools.

Politics as a Design Tool

Let’s start by reframing this “dirty” word.

Politics are the study of power and power structures. From the earliest Neolithic tribe to the most semi-evolved boardroom, politics explain how humans organize to get things done in response to social dynamics and institutional demands. It is about the art of the possible, within the very real constraints of organizational and systemic realities.

It’s precisely in response to the politics that govern organizations and industries that designers created visual storytelling artifacts – like empathy maps, customer journey maps, and service blueprints – that ground customer experience firmly in the perspectives of system and context. These visuals, in of themselves, do not create good customer experiences. Rather, they organize your team – helping the vast network of colleagues and systems you work with move in unison to produce all of the small touchpoints that add up to an experience.

In short, these aren’t just design artifacts, they’re political artifacts too.

Starting a (Customer) Revolution

If you’re a designer—whether it’s in your title or not—and you’re working to make your organization more customer-centric, there are a range of lessons you can learn from the world of politics to drive change inside that will show up to your customers outside.

The orchestration of people and resources is – without fail – hard. It’s hard, in organizations large and small, to work together. It’s hard, when people are paid well to be specialists and experts, to speak the same language across disciplines. And it’s very hard, despite good intentions, for teams to see a problem the same way.

That’s where designers come in. Designers have the creative and political tools needed to bring teams together around a common vision and solution – tools that help people pivot from the vertical thinking that protects their silo, to the horizontal thinking that’s required for customer experience transformation. Whether the word “designer” describes your position or your attitude, here are political principles all designers should embrace:


  1. Fiercely advocate for your constituents (aka users)

Designers see themselves as representing the voice of their users – finding ways to listen to users and speak on their behalf. This is exactly how a representative democracy (supposedly) works. Designers advocate for users who are often voiceless and push for designs and design optimizations that make experiences better.

How to do it: Get in the field, early and often.

Politicians call it retail politics, UX researchers call it contextual research. Either way, if you’re good at either you’re pounding the pavement. Use contextual inquiry, participant observation, and customer immersions to get you — and your team — up close and personal with your users on a regular basis. If folks in your organization have a bad habit of projecting what they want as what users need, this is the antidote. Get in the field, kill your assumptions, make experiences that matter.


  1. Build coalitions

Increasingly, the role of designers in complex organizations is to be the “connective tissue” between different teams of specialists. Harkening back to a time when “compromise” and “diplomacy” were celebrated, the designer facilitates the construction of a common vision for the future and helps people agree on the real problem to be solved. Designers must build a coalition of the willing to get things done on behalf of users, or their efforts will fail.

How to do it: Commit to both the employee and customer experience.

You cannot create a good customer experience if you have a crappy employee experience. Think about it. Nobody wants to patronize a business where employees are dead inside. Start with employee listening tours. Go in person and get to know every internal team that touches your initiative / product. Understand what excites them and, importantly, what makes them cynical. Then, if you can’t bring them in field with you, bring everyone together to synthesize and make sense of customer research. Do this through a regular cadence of ideation sessions, design sprints, and sensemaking workshops – not only so they’re bought in to your research, but so they’re inspired by the sense of mission that brought them to your company in the first place.


  1. Challenge the status quo

When I covered the federal bureaucracy and congress as a reporter, someone once casually whispered to me: “Do you realize how many people are paid to make sure nothing happens?” In fact, nothing happening was often a metric for success in Washington. Sad? A bit… but also a reality of politics and power (your ideal = someone’s worst nightmare). Change is, go figure, hard. Advocacy, agitation and “disruption” are part of the process, as is tension when you’re pushing against organizational inertia to drive change for customers.

How to Do It: Create a burning platform.

You will encounter resistance on the home front. Just. Start. Doing. Stuff. Rack up quick wins and use white space mapping, “How might we” (HMW) statements, and creative visioning exercises to bring people together around a non-cynical view of what the future could look like. Create space for people to dream and be unapologetically ambitious — and then use your burning platform to attract others (especially those who used to be resistant) to your vision.


  1. Embrace being unpopular (at the right moment)

Politicians and designers alike are fond of the post-rationalizing trope that “if [insert person] wasn’t mad at me it’d mean I wasn’t doing my job right.” Cop out? Maybe. But there’s a kernel of truth. In service of a better experience, designers often need to take a stand as organizations do the dirty work of distilling who gets final decision-making authority: the user’s needs or the businesses’ objectives? If you have rock-solid user insights that are at odds with a business priority, relish the fight ahead. Debate, as in politics, is a bloodsport for designers. As Theodore Roosevelt would say, get in the arena.

How to do it: Move them with qual, convince them with quant.

Good politicians and designers both know their audience. Do your stakeholders need to be moved or convinced?. Use qual to move people through story and emotion. Use quant UX (i.e. experience KPIs, OKRs, survey data, traffic analytics) to convince them with hard numbers. Use mixed research methods to support your vision and stand your ground. A rock-solid foundation of qualitative and quantitative insights is the one-two punch that protects you when your ideas are inevitably challenged.


  1. Commit to the process

“The rules of the game determine the outcomes,” a professor of mine used to say. This was in reference to how Congress does (or doesn’t) work. Even when tested, our institutions work as designed – even if it’s not how we’d prefer. The same is true of the design process itself. Design, done right, follows a linear process that, within, is chaotic and fractious. The design process, analogous to the political one, is about the competition of ideas. It can be uncomfortable and inconvenient. This is the root of iterative design. It’s contentious… by design.

How to do it: Show your work by democratizing design.

Just like the machinations of Congress, the design process is hard to understand from the outside. Bring people in, show them prototypes of your work, and visually articulate the steps in a way that helps people understand what to expect. Conduct trainings on human-centered design and do regular co-creative workshops with teams to help people understand why each step of your process is critical to the end result.


  1. Drive change from the grassroots – and the grasstops

“Executive buy in” is the mythical energy source that gives life to most initiatives in organizations, large and small. And while getting the grasstops bought into a design initiative is crucial, so is galvanizing the grassroots across your organization. Savvy designers know they need to build a movement—both with their “small dollar donors” (grassroots employees) and their big-time backers (grasstops executives with the power of the purse).

How to do it: Create a CX ambassador program.

The most influential people in your organization aren’t sitting on top of an org chart. Change that drives a better customer experience cannot come from the top alone. It has to be a commitment felt and lived from the bottom up and middle out. To spark this movement, create ambassador programs stocked with rising stars in your organization. Take a “train the trainer” approach and deputize top talent to help others buy in and start making critical changes necessary for customer experience transformation.


  1. Paint a vision — and sell your ideas

At the end of the day, design, like politics, is about selling ideas. About making a case, painting a vision, and getting people bought into ideas that resonate and inspire. There’s a reason the term “moon shot” is so common in describing stretch goals and wildly innovative ideas. You can thank JFK for that. Designers need to know their internal audience, connect with them, and make the case for why their vision is the one people should follow.

How to do it: Live as your word.

Commit to your vision and do what you say you will do. Make sure employees feel the transformation and that they stay inspired to deliver a better experience to your customers. Communicate, bring people along, and never let your most precious resource go to waste: momentum.

Still hate politics?

Yeah, I figured you might. Whether you’re a design Machiavelli or a CX Honest Abe, the point is that politics are real, and they shape your ability to successfully drive customer experience design. Get practical, be shrewd, and embrace politics as one of the most important tools you have for doing right by your customers.

Mark Micheli

Vice President, Experience Innovation & Product Strategy

With a career spanning digital journalism, content marketing, product management, and UX design, Mark uses multiple perspectives to elevate the voice of users and unite cross-functional teams around...

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