5 reasons outsiders are crucial when designing for people

Understanding the value of an external perspective 

Human-centered design focuses on creating services and experiences that resonate deeply with the customers we aim to serve. It relies on connecting with someone else’ perspective, stepping into their shoes, seeing what they see, and sensing what they experience. To do this, we should have a high level of self-awareness to avoid projecting our own experience onto the other person's reality.

Including a variety of people in our design process, people with different backgrounds, worldviews, experiences, beliefs and perspectives, supports us in seeing things objectively and gaining an external perspective.

 Let’s unpack why this helps create great designs:

 1. An outsider helps uncover assumptions

 “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” - Mark Twain.

 People in organisations develop beliefs about their business, services and customers. These things can seem like absolute truths, and often we don’t realise the premise under which we are working. For example: in a fast food business, we might believe 'people want a fast service over anything else'.

 When we invite people who aren’t part of the history of our organisation’s belief systems into the room, they can question and challenge “truths” that appear obvious to us, opening us up to new possibilities. Consciously surfacing beliefs allows us to review and examine them and decide if they are still serving us, and our customers, as we move forward.

2. An outsider doesn’t share our lingo

“Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.” - Walter Lippman.

 When we work with a group of people over time, we streamline our interactions creating shortcuts in our language enabling us to reach consensus and solutions quickly. Fast,streamlined communication is an important part of building effective teams.. However, it can prevent new ideas from gaining traction by limiting new perspectives and stifling creativity. Bringing in new people with a different background and no experience of our internal language and acronyms causes us to slow down and explain what we mean. This can lead to a deeper exploration of ideas and blossoming creativity. 

3. Outsiders aren’t bound to the hierarchy

“Unfortunately, in a hierarchical structure, power relationships tend to determine the content; there is always the danger that a "rank-based" logic will prevail. Managers, intent on advancement, tend to supply the information they know their superiors want to hear, rather than the information they ought to hear. Large organizations tend, therefore, to become systematically stupid.” ― John Médaille.

 We all like to believe we are courageous and can say what needs to be said. However, sometimes it proves difficult to call out the elephant in the room. Large organisational structures can make us feel unsafe to share our honest viewpoints. There’s even a three letter acronym, CLM (career limiting move), which recognises that when we say something unpopular it might prevent our upward progress in the organisation. For people external to our organisation, there is no promotion on the line, no politics at play, no impact on their performance review. They have no skin in the game. People free from agenda and impact can ask ‘silly’ questions, ruffle feathers, and point to the elephant without fear of consequences.

4. An outsider connects us to other industries

There is constant change happening across most industries today, caused by rapidly changing technology, a generational shift in values, and changing political and environmental landscapes. Social media gives a voice to the individual and we rely less on mainstream media and TV ads to discover what’s news, where to shop and what to do. People seek recommendations for products and companies and report good and bad experiences at a ridiculously fast pace.

No organisation is immune to the rising expectations of their customers -  expectations not only of what “should be” but also “what is possible”. Our customers are also customers of other organisations in other industries. Telecommunications customers also use health services. Citizens who vote also donate to not-for-profits, use banks and buy cars. Expectations set with customers in one domain are leaking across to other domains. In the past, we might have accepted bad experiences (“well that’s what it’s like to deal with a real estate agent”), but now people bring their broad experience and expectations with them wherever they go.

Typical competition and environment scans have us looking within our own industry and at direct competitors, staying in our comfort space.

Bringing in someone from a separate industry, with a unique view of the same customers we serve, can highlight opportunities to improve and adapt to anticipate our customers' rising expectations. Gaining a holistic view of our customers can reveal interesting opportunities we might otherwise miss by looking myopically in our own industry.

5. An outsider doesn’t know what we know

One of the challenges when looking out from within an organisation is we see our services and customer experience through the lens of our organisation. We understand our internal structure, our IT systems, which department does what, how our processes are supposed to work, and how we think things ‘should’ actually occur for our customers. It’s really hard to set this information aside and put ourselves in the mind of our customer to see our services with fresh eyes, from the outside in. It’s hard to adopt a beginner’s mind and forget all the knowledge and understanding we’ve gained over the years. Including someone from outside our organisation brings us the outside-in perspective and assists us to see our customers’ perspective. In fact, our customers are often the ideal outsiders in this case!


So the next question is, who do we involve?