Deepening our Approach to Customer Experience Design and Design Thinking

In 1995 I published my first paper on customer experience design in the journal Human-Computer Interaction. Titled Delivering Competitive Edge, discussing the way in which usability could give competitive edge to products, services and companies by developing closer collaborations between human factors and marketing practitioners.

We discussed how user-centred design practices could complement those in marketing, explaining how our Human Factors department had:

…adopted an approach we call ‘designing the customer experience’. At its heart was a programme of research into human needs. By bringing together Marketing and Human Factors with more radical perspectives such as semiotics and anthropology, creative and visualisation skills, and rapid technological advances, we have generated an environment for user-centred innovation.

The subtitle of Customer Experiences with Soul is A New Era in Design. There are a number of aspects of our approach which I have never seen in any other book on customer experience design, the main ones being universal human values, the transition of consciousness, collaboration vs ‘knotworks’, an extensive range of Brazilian case studies and Latin American culture, a focus on being, and finally the development of a new design tool we call the holonomic circle which is based on the philosophical practices of phenomenology and hermeneutics.

Human factors and user-centred design had always developed from the academic disciplines of cognitive psychology, semiotics and anthropology. But there is another side to design which is art. There are transcendental aspects of design which are understood, absorbed and then lived which are rarely taught in science or the humanities. For this reason Maria and I developed a transcendental approach to customer experience design in which science, philosophy and art come together into one single understanding, one in which it is possible to understand wholeness.

The obvious question of this last statement is what exactly do we mean by ‘wholeness’? And once we have understood it, how can we apply a concept which at first is seemingly abstract and philosophical? Customer Experiences with Soul is a design book with a narrative, one in which this understanding of wholeness gradually unfolds. Chapter by chapter we take readers through the holonomic circle, and this journey of course includes an exploration of art, beauty, truth, identity and difference.

Credit: Holonomics Education

For this reason, during the research for our book, Maria and I took the opportunity to speak with Brazilian artist Eduardo Srur, one of the world’s leading urban interventionists who designs large scale works of art in urban spaces which draw people’s attention to the environment and major issues affecting cities and urban living. In this interview Eduardo reflected on his way of being:

As an artist you can never be satisfied with reality. You always have to question things. You have to have conviction in yourself, create your own form of expression and poetry.

While not every one of us has artistic ability, we all do have artistic curiosity, and this is a characteristic which can be developed and deepened. The way we do so is through deepening our explorations of the different ways in which we can experience reality, and by entering into our lived experience of the world.

When I graduated in my final year at university I remember certain feelings of disappointment and disenchantment with psychology, since in focusing so intently on the development computational models of cognition, any exploration on our lived experience as human beings had somehow become lost, or at very best, dismissed as not important.

While cognitive psychology seeks to explain the mechanisms of human cognition through the development of computational models, the philosophical practice of phenomenology seeks to stay within human experience, in order to uncover uncommon or unnoticed structures and patterns. As David Seamon explains in Life Takes Place: Phenomenology, Lifeworlds and Place Making, phenomenology:

a way of understanding that emphasises the description and interpretation of human experience, awareness, and meaning, particularly their unnoticed, taken-for-granted dimensions.

In 2009 I spent a week in the company of Henri Bortoft, one of the world’s leading phenomenologists. In these lectures, Henri took us into what he termed the dynamical way of seeing, a way of understanding wholeness in systems which is first found in the writings of Plato. It is then found in the scientific works of Goethe, and more latterly in the twentieth century in the phenomenological and hermeneutical texts of philosophers such as Hans-Georg Gadamer and Martin Heidegger.

Henri Bortoft

Maria and I introduce readers to Henri’s dynamic way of seeing and thinking about systems in our first book book Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter. It is a way of seeing which expands our mode of consciousness from the analytical to the intuitive; one that not only is able to understand the parts of a system, but at a deeper, intuitive level of perception, is also able to understand the relationships and processes within that system — not from the perspective of a whole which is superior to the parts, but from one which is able to encounter the whole through the way in which it comes to presence in the parts. (‘Intuition’ as we use the word should not be confused with ‘feeling’ as it is used in everyday language, but as a higher level of cognition to that of our intellectual minds).

By breaking our of abstract and symbolic thought, we are able to see and understand more of what is around us, enabling to inhabit once again a vibrant living organic world, being more open to new ideas, ones which may not necessarily fit our pre-conceptions of the world, thus developing a more creative and constructive relationship with nature, our technology, and of course other people we connect with in our daily lives.

Henri’s work is powerful because it provides us with a radically different and powerful new way to understand systems. When his dynamic conception of wholeness is truly understood, it changes our way of seeing, and takes us into an understanding of experience, meaning and being. These are not just questions for science and philosophy, but for helping us understand our relationship to other people, to nature, to design, to architecture and to the development of new organisational structures.

Photo: Simon Robinson

It was Henri’s dynamic conception of wholeness which inspired Maria and I to write Holonomics in which we introduce readers to Henri’s dynamical conception of wholeness and show how it can be understood in relation to systems thinking and complexity science, the development of new business models, and also how it relates to changes in our mental models, leadership and the transformation of consciousness in organisations.

Customer Experiences with Soul, extends these insights from Henri’s work, notably the dynamic way of seeing, into the area of customer experience design. The holonomic circle, which articulates the meaning of soul in a design, business and branding context. This framework takes its inspiration from the hermeneutic circle, an approach to understanding meaning in texts and works of art which Henri explored extensively.

Given the central influence of Henri’s thinking in both Customer Experiences with Soul and Holonomics, I was extremely happy late last year to be able to publish his 2009 lectures from Schumacher College which I had thought had been lost. Each lecture was published weekly between November 2018 and January 2019 together with my lecture notes for each one.

Henri Bortoft at Schumacher College, 2009

So for those of who really wish to deepen your practice of customer experience design by exploring phenomenology and hermeneutics as we describe in our book, this is a wonderful opportunity to learn from one of the great teachers of these fields.

The Henri Bortoft Lectures: Day One

The Henri Bortoft Lectures: Day Two, Part One

The Henri Bortoft Lectures: Day Two, Part Two

The Henri Bortoft Lectures: Day Three

The Henri Bortoft Lectures: Day Four, Part One

The Henri Bortoft Lectures: Day Four, Part Two

The Henri Bortoft Lectures: Day Four, Part Three

The Henri Bortoft Lectures: Day Five, Part One

The Henri Bortoft Lectures: Day Five, Part Two

In addition to the actual lectures, I have also written an introduction and a concluding article which takes a look at the many different ways in which Maria and I have been applying this dynamic approach to wholeness in organisations, such as cultural transformation, leadership and creative thinking.

The Henri Bortoft Lectures: Introduction

Putting Henri Bortoft’s Philosophy of Wholeness into Practice through Holonomics

The last few years have seen an explosion of interest in design thinking as a way to develop creative thinking and innovation in organisations. In many cases the emphasis has been on the inclusion of non-practitioners in order to gain as wide an understanding as possible into design problems and people’s needs.

While this is of course welcome, I sometimes feel the emphasis on design methodologies and agile practices such as design sprints has meant we have lost focus on those aspects of mastery. For this reason Maria and I wrote Customer Experiences with Soul to provide inspiration for current practitioners to deepen their mastery, while also providing an accessible text to inspire anyone with any responsibility for the experience of their customers, clients and colleagues.

Based on the feedback we have received about both our book from readers and also from our many clients who have been introducing our Holonomics approach and Customer Experiences with Soul framework into their organisations, it truly does feel like this new era of design is arriving. I hope that in our writings and in these lectures you too will find the inspiration and teachings to expand your horizons and develop new approaches no matter where you may currently be in your organisation, in your career and on your journeys.

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