a room of empty chairs
PHOTO: Jonas Jacobsson

The number of user experience (UX) professionals I meet who don’t regularly undertake user research is disturbing. In fact, in many organizations, digital teams rarely interact with customers.

Failing to maintain closeness to the customer is the canary in the coal mine when it comes to digital design. The greater the distance from the customer, the more likely the digital team is to just churn out stuff, spinning out wireframes and bits and bobs.

Who’s afraid of the customer? Why be so scared? They don’t bite — not usually, anyway. How can you do good work if you’re constantly looking down all the time? All this activity, for what? What real use is it?

The digital world is such a wasteful environment, as it produces so much stuff that is never used, let alone reused. How many digital teams possess true data on how useful their work is?

We have a real problem here: a whole profession that supposedly creates stuff for other people, but those other people are largely invisible when key decisions are made. We all know that the “U” in UX is not YOU. However, evidence shows that too much digital stuff (content, designs, graphics) is created not for satisfying the customer but for satiating the ego of some entity within the organization.

The best digital professionals are constantly struggling to get organizations to truly engage and interact with their customers. Customer obsession has been a wildly successful model at corporate giants such as Amazon and Google. Regardless of what you say about Facebook, what you can’t say is that they don’t have a deep understanding of their customers.

In numerous situations, customer-centricity has proven to be the magic sauce for successful digital initiatives. What is big data if not a big pile of potential customer insights?

Is senior management to blame? Is it that they don’t get it or that they refuse to respect their customers? Or is the lack of respect something that mars many digital teams as well?

I remember once being in a meeting with customer service and digital teams. I found the customer service professionals to have tremendous insights about customers. Why? Because they talk to customers every day. However, the digital team’s insights were limited, as they hardly ever interacted with customers. Yet they felt they could dismiss the insights of the customer service team because, well, you know why: digital professionals are cooler.

One of the greatest attributes that any of us can develop is humility. The world is way too complex for one mind to be able to deal with. Great digital is a collaborative game. Great digital is a silo bridge-building game, and the most important bridges you can build are between organizations and their customers.

Every day, every single day, you should be learning from your customers. Sorry, you can come up with all the excuses in the world, but if you’re not getting closer and closer to your customers, you’re moving further and further away from good work. Work’s that’s useful. Work that has real purpose. Work that has real meaning. It’s the type of work we all want to do, isn’t it?