The right customer interactions, implemented the right way, don't just happen. Instead, they must be actively designed. This requires learning — and then sticking to — the steps in a human-centered design process. But this approach is not for the faint of heart.

If you want to embrace human-centered design, you have to admit that you don’t know the answers to your problems. At its core, design is a problem-solving process. It takes into account the needs of customers, employees, and stakeholders — and it can be applied to create new (or improved) products, services, and experiences. While that all sounds good, embarking on a problem-solving project implicitly means you don’t have the answers to your current business problems. And in today’s solution-focused business environment, not having an answer can be seen as a weakness.

In fact, we’re so solution-focused that providing answers has become almost a knee-jerk reaction. Here’s a quick experiment: Ask the next colleague you see how to solve a particular problem, and she’ll likely give you an answer or two — maybe even three. It’s very unlikely that your colleague will pause for a moment, reflect on your question, and proceed to ask you more about the challenge you’re facing. But that’s exactly the approach that human-centered design takes.

It’s hard enough to admit that you don’t have the answers — and then human-centered design makes you admit that you don’t even understand the problem itself. And while that can be difficult, it pays off in spades. For example, several years ago, Holiday Inn was losing money on its food and beverage business and set off to improve this area of the hotel experience. After conducting and analyzing in-depth customer research — the first two steps in the design process — the project team realized its hotel guests didn’t just want to eat and drink. They also wanted to relax, have fun, and connect to their homes and offices — and transition seamlessly among all these activities. By stepping back and examining its problem in depth, Holiday Inn was able to arrive at a much more holistic and profitable solution than if it had simply jumped straight into making one-off changes to its menu and pricing. But the fun doesn’t stop there . . . 

Once you’ve admitted that you don’t have the answers — or even the problem, really — human-centered design demands that you expect to be wrong! Humans are natural problem solvers. But when we’re designing complex interactions or systems, our solutions are never 100% perfect right out of the gate. That’s why human-centered design processes include a key step: prototyping to make your ideas tangible. Testing those prototypes with real customers comes next — not to validate that your solutions are awesome, but to figure out what doesn’t work and learn more about what your customers really need. And guess what? You’re not going to do this once, but multiple times.

This type of iteration is antithetical to standard waterfall development processes — and it will initially drive your well-intentioned project managers batty. Yes, design insists that you go against the grain — and this is where your resolve to design amazing customer experiences must hold strong. Because it’s exactly these qualities of design — the things that make it so very different from today’s mainstream business practices — that also make it so very powerful.