Beginning Small

How Mere Words Can Shape Enterprise Trajectory


Businesses at all levels are beginning to actively engage with the problems of user experience because they have seen the profound effects of excellent interactions with customers: more re-purchasers, more customer referrals, greater customer loyalty, etc. The list of benefits goes on and on. I’m not going to discuss the need for interaction design and customer experience management right now. Research shows that “90% of companies feel that customer experience is very important or critical in 2010, and 80% intend to use it as competitive differentiation.”1 Most companies understand that need and those that don’t will soon be left behind.

Instead, I’d like to discuss how businesses are attempting to structure their own organization to fulfill that need. It was a big step just getting companies to have the customer experience conversation; so many design advocates were satisfied with whatever form it took. The accomplishment of even discussing how an enterprise should respond to individual customer journeys is not to be understated. Today however, I am saying we need to move to the next step: ensuring positive outcomes from customer experience management initiatives. Hank Barnes has touched on some of the problems companies are having in sustaining customer-centricity. 2 I’d like to build on his discussion and talk about a more fundamental structure we need to examine: words. The language used in conversation shapes its outcome and I believe the language of the experience discussion is preventing many companies from achieving or sustaining the focus on customer experience that is the initial goal of these efforts.

The language and words we use is one of the subtlest ways we unwittingly sabotage our own end goals. We hardly think about the words we use internally with our teams and colleagues. To illustrate this specifically, I’d like to talk about the phrase ‘outside-in’ that is currently experiencing its 15 minutes of fame in the business world. ‘Outside-in’ is generally used to mean considering customer desires and goals and establishing a company culture centered on satisfying those user needs. This idea aims to create happier customers who will then make the company more money.3

I purport that not only does this phrase ‘outside-in’ fail to accomplish its stated goal, but that the phrase itself actively contributes to a competitive ‘us vs. them’ mentality which prevents the very culture it attempts to create. ‘Outside-in’ is a divisive concept. It sets two groups, the outside users and the inside company members, against each other instead of aligning them together as integral parts of a single organization – your business.

Sociologists call this type of language ‘othering’ because its use creates distance between the speaker and those s/he is speaking about, creating an inherently unequal power dynamic.4 Though mainly used in sociology to discuss self-justifications for discriminatory policies and societal structures that reinforce the existing, unequal power structures, the concept of ‘othering’ is useful in discussing why so many companies fail to sustain a customer-centered practice, despite pouring millions of dollars and hours into customer experience management initiatives.

‘Outside-in’ and phrases like it are language only used by business professionals, never by customers. And so, since the company sees itself in the position of providing users products and services, the people in that company use language, unconsciously, that reassures them of their position of power without even acknowledging that they are speaking a language not relevant to customers. By doing so, they undermine their efforts to understand and empathize with their customers. If the underlying language structures focus on how different, how ‘other,’ the customer is, the obstacles to understanding user needs become near insurmountable.

Business has come a long way in how customers are treated. But there is still a long way to go in order to truly understand and respond to the differing customer journeys. As an enterprise representative, it is vitally important to think of customers not as an ‘other’ whose goals must be manipulated into fitting within your own, but rather an inherent part of your organization whose goals are essential to the accomplishment of the company’s larger aims. Different teams already cooperate within an enterprise, so why not consider your customers another team or department? Their input cannot be excluded, so treating them as part of the process can help ensure that their perspectives do not get lost along the way. Once this mental shift has been achieved, along with the accompanying vocabulary change, customer experience presents itself as a collaborative opportunity to pursue multiple goals at once – goals that make both the customer and the enterprise happy.


  1. Temkin, Bruce, William Chu, and Rachel Zinser. The State of Customer Experience, 2010. Research Report. Forrester Research, 19 Feb. 2010. Web. <,_2010/q/id/56316/t/2>.
  2. Barnes, Hank. “Outside-In Is Easy to Say, but Hard to Do.” Experience Delivers. Adobe Blogs, 20 Apr. 2011. Web. 26 Apr. 2011. <>.
  3. Denning, Steve. “The Alternative To Top-Down Is Outside-In.” Forbes. 13 Feb. 2011. Web. 26 Apr. 2011. <>.
  4. “Other.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 4 Apr. 2011. Web. 26 Apr. 2011. <>.



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