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Whose experience is it anyway?

In a previous blog I talked about some of the myriad challenges in identifying the right experiences that we should be designing. I suggested that understanding that the very human problem of cognitive bias needs to be factored in to our thinking since these biases affect how and what we design.  

A secondary problem is that these biases also impact who we think we are designing for. So this time around I’d like to offer some advice on how to surface these biases. If we can surface them then we can critically assess how they are impacting both design choices and audience choices.

My audience, my choice?

A fair question to ask at this point is why audience choice matters? In terms of CX isn’t the selection of the Customer squarely up to the organisation? 

I’d whole-heartedly agree in terms of market-driven, commercial organisations but replace Customer with Citizen and there are additional dimensions to consider such as fairness and social responsibility. I’d argue that even in digital first commercial business models the idea of fairness is an increasingly intrinsic element of customer experience platforms, especially those that are two-sided platforms.

I’d also suggest that the bias-surfacing approach I’m advocating would help you to understand some hidden factors you might not be aware of, even in a commercial setting. 

What are we dealing with?

Before I get to the approach, I need to establish a couple of points of agreement with you

  1. Customer experience thinking involves systems thinking
  2. You can’t satisfy all of the people all of the time
  3. There are limits to what you offer and to whom you offer it.

If you don’t agree with these things then you’re either a monopoly, the owner of an uncorruptible paradise, or completely omnipotent. If you’re any of those things then you don’t need any insights I might offer and you can go back to sipping your margarita underneath the sun umbrella on that perfect white-sand beach.

For the less fortunate of us, allow me to explain further…

Customer experience thinking involves systems thinking

Without conducting a literature review of 100 years of systems thinking here’s a usable definition of a system:

“An organized, purposeful structure that consists of interrelated and interdependent elements (components, entities, factors, members, parts etc.). These elements continually influence one another (directly or indirectly) to maintain their activity and the existence of the system, in order to achieve the goal of the system”

So, if we are thinking about customer experience then a customer is one of the entities interacting with the component parts of your business model, generally to get something done.  Ergo, we are dealing with a system.

You can’t satisfy all of the people all of the time

You just can’t – accept it but work out a way to manage the essential dilemma and to distinguish the important from the trivial.

There are limits to what you offer and to whom you offer it

Even Google has limits - there are boundaries that you need to accept and boundaries that you need to define. This last point is particularly important in terms of understanding and defining customer experience but is the area that is most subject to bias.

A method for surfacing the bias: Critical Systems Heuristics

Werner Ulrich, the noted systems thinker, developed the idea of an “eternal triangle” when it comes to engaging with systems.

The eternal triangle of boundary critique
Figure 1: The eternal triangle of boundary critique

The key insight from Ulrich is that the boundary judgements about a system are interdependent with the observations and values of the participants. They are not fixed nor are they necessarily explicit. The bad news is that a designer’s view of what is to be included or excluded from the design of a system does not necessarily match the boundary judgements made by a consumer of the system. 

In a commercial setting, significant variances in the boundary judgments between the creators of a systems and its users may result in those unlovely marketing terms like “poor conversion rates’, low click-through rates or poor NPS values. However, in less “opt-in/opt-out”’ friendly settings such as social and government services, the effects of this can be more serious, resulting in social disenfranchisement and exclusion.

There is good news though. The fact there are inevitably going to be different boundary judgements in play within a system does not mean that it is impossible to surface those differences and to change things as a result.  Ulrich calls this process “boundary critique” – it is a process of critical reflection to help surface current and desired boundary judgments within a reference system.  

The important CX factor in this process is that there is an emancipatory component to the critique and specific attention is given to those that are affected by a system and not just those that are involved.

Life without boundary critique

Let’s look at the anatomy of how systems get initiated and developed and the general sources that inform the boundary judgements that get applied. 

What factors inform boundary judgements
Figure 2: What factors inform boundary judgements

I would argue that the above factors probably cover off most of what gets covered by a business case within many organisations. It looks fine on the surface, after all, "client” is in there and purpose is in there, so we’ve got CX thinking covered, right?

I know you know that I’m going to disagree that CX is completely covered! – it comes back to who is actually involved in defining those things – it’s the professional experts and internal decision makers and not the clients themselves.

Ulrich adds another source for boundary judgements that provides a counterbalancing voice to the equation. By adding the idea of legitimacy to what Ulrich calls the “anatomy of selectivity” we can make explicit the boundary judgements about who will be affected by the system and not just those involved. 

Considering those affected but not involved
Figure 3: Considering those affected but not involved

In the world of digital channels that Intergen lives in, this is an important question. Digital divides exist and a persona does not a person make. By all means, establish boundaries and accept that you can’t please everyone but maybe do that in the open light of critical thinking rather the darkness of embedded bias.

The critical thinking bit

The purpose of this blog is not to tell you in exhaustive detail how to apply Critical Systems Heuristics (CSH), more to pose the question of: have you considered CX from the perspective of those affected as well as those involved? Far better explanations are available online. The method and a large number of Dr Ulrich’s writing are available on his website http://wulrich.com and in numerous academic journals.

However, to get you started, below is the table of the questions that CSH poses in examining boundary judgements.

Checklist of boundary questions
Figure 4: Checklist of boundary questions

What I do want to get across is the importance of the brackets in the above questions. What’s key is asking the questions in the light of both what is the case and what ought to be the case. This is where I see the real value in surfacing what’s hidden or assumed about customer/citizen/stakeholder experience. 

The wrap- up

Time for the pithy wrap-up and key takeaways:

Customer experience is part of complex system – critical systems thinking tools are designed to address this.

You probably have buried boundary judgements that mean how you view customer experience and how your customers view it are very different. Try surfacing them so you can have open and honest conversations.

If you are providing public/citizen-centric services that deal with social equity, maybe ask yourselves if you have considered or ought to consider those affected but not involved – give voice to the those who might struggle to speak or be heard.


This blog is part of the #cxreimagine series. For more experts' insights, clients' experiences and to download the whitepaper, click the banner.

For more experts' insights, clients' experience and to download the whitepaper, click the banner #cxreimagine

Posted by: Mark Smith, Head of Consulting and Architecture Services, Intergen | 02 May 2019

Tags: Digital Transformation, customer experience, #CXreimagine

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