An Online CX Designer’s Guide to Managing Power Struggles at Work

Frank Norbert Stein, head of web development for the Transylvanian Lightbulb and Toy (TLT) Company, looked at the latest reports and shook his fist. His company’s website continued to lag behind their largest competitor. Users had constant complaints about the customer experience, especially compared to other firms. TLT was losing business, and Frank knew why. It was those idiots in the C-suite.

“They called me mad when I wanted to do a complete overhaul,” he fumed as he sipped his latte. “They said I was crazy, that my ideas would never work.” He slammed his hand on the table and cackled loudly. “Fools! I’ll show them all. I’ll create the most original, innovative website that the world has ever seen. Soon, they will all tremble in awe before the power of my redesign!”

He sent an email to management explaining that he’d be making just a few tweaks. By the time they realized that he was releasing a complete overhaul, it would be too late for them to stop him. He turned to his long-suffering intern. “Igor,” he boomed. “Our time has come at last. Release the Python!”

TLT would never know what hit them.

What the New Prometheus Didn’t Know about CX Design

In Mary Shelley’s original novel, Dr. Frankenstein is tagged as the “New Prometheus.” Trusting his own intelligence more than the perceptions of those around him, he assumes he understands everything there is to know about a complex system. He calls down fire from the sky and creates life. In the end, his own certainty that he can engineer perfection leads to his downfall.

Modern economists call this idea that one can understand and modify extremely complicated systems “the God complex.” When people suffer from the God complex, they overestimate how much they understand and underestimate the complexity of the system they’re trying to change. The God complex underlies many modern failures, from the initial roll-out of the healthcare exchanges to the disaster that was New Coke. It explains why so many people in upper management avoid sweeping changes. It’s not because they don’t understand new technology or innovation. It’s because they understand them well enough to recognize their limits.

Frankenstein may be fictional, but his personality quirks ring all too true for some of us in the CX design business. In web design, the God complex appears when developers decide that they know exactly what your customers should want and need. In reality, many customer-facing websites arrived at their current state through complex, organic processes. Even when a designer thinks he understands why the site exists in its current, ugly, unusable form, he probably doesn’t actually grasp the history, compromises, and nuance that went into the current design.

Here’s an example: a local library had a terrible website. The patrons, staff, and administration all agreed it was horrible. The library hired a web designer who created a completely new site. Nothing was the same. To freshen it up, he included a healthy helping of “Web 2.0 Magic.” He created a beautiful landing page and included all sorts of interactive features. Nevertheless, the roll-out failed horribly. It turned out that what patrons wanted wasn’t the ultimate innovation in library sites. They simply wanted something clear, easy to navigate, quick to load, and mobile-friendly. They cared less about the glories of Web 2.0 than the convenience of having hours, contact info, and the link to the online catalog clearly displayed on the first page.

This scenariowhere someone with a God complex heads up a disastrous redesignplays out over and over again in all sectors of the economy. It’s an easy trap for experts to fall into, especially in the customer experience biz, and it’s often too insidious to see until you’re already watching the mob storm from your carefully constructed mountaintop laboratory.

It’s Live! MUAHAHAHA…Hey, Who Are All Those People with Torches?

Back at TLT, Frank N. Stein worked like a madman over the next few weeks. The site redesign consumed him. He enlisted the aid of his developer friends and alpha and beta tested the thing to death. A few people joked that he’d even pulled gamma and delta into the equation. The finished product represented a new paradigm for Transylvanian web design. Frank knew that everyone would love it. How could they not? It was perfection itself.

The complaints started within the first 24 hours. Long-time customers were appalled, upper management recoiled in horror. Media contacts wrote up lurid headlines about a website so odd that it bordered on monstrous.

“Master, perhaps we could tweak the design a bit,” Igor suggested with a trembling voice. “At least, until they get used to the change.”

“Never! Would you ask Michelangelo to tweak the David? Van Gogh to tweak his starry night? I’d rather be fired than change a line of code.”

Management was happy to comply with his wishes. In no time at all, Frank N. Stein had lost his IT castle, and Igor took over the department. After reverting to the original site, he began to make incremental changes in response to specific issues. Both the C-suite and the customers loved his slow and steady approach. His former Master could only follow his progress remotely while swearing revenge.

Avoiding Frankenstein’s Monster of a Website Redesign

Frank N. Stein’s downfall is not an uncommon story in IT projects that revolve around customer experience. When you’re an expert, you tend to see web design through expert eyes, not through the eyes of the customer. If you want to avoid the curse of the God complex, you need to start your project with humility and realize that most complicated systems cannot be understood, no matter how intelligent you or your design team may be. And when designing a site for customer experience, remember that the best CX design begins where it ends: with the customer.

Instead of a massive overhaul, successful redesigns usually come in the form of gradual improvements and trial and error. Try changing just one or two things at a time, and be prepared to backtrack if customer experience suffers. Remember, even if customers have given you feedback on what they hate, their summary of the problems might not accurately reflect the roots of the problems. Odds are your customers don’t speak the niche language of web design. But one thing customers do know is what they like and what they don’t. For a web designer, understanding this key part of CX design can be the difference between moving up in your company or finding yourself out on the cold streets of Transylvania.


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