Video: The Gap Between Company & Customer

by July 19, 2023

When teams building products have an intimate knowledge of the problems they are trying to solve, user-centered design is easy. But as this four minute clip from my Mind the Gap talk outlines when a company grows, a gap between its efforts and its customer's needs can quickly open up. You can even smell the departments on what gets shipped.


When the user is the maker, there's no gap between who is building the product and who is using it. So user-centered design is easy because you're the user. You feel the same pain, share the same perspective, and can address the problem.

As a company grows though, a gap between the customer and the company starts to open up. We don't just add development teams to our companies, we might also hire some designers to help develop the UI, the brand, and style our sites.

As the company grows, it's likely we need a product management organization to coordinate the work of all these developers and designers, and make sure someone's thinking about the business impact, the timelines, the market dynamics, and more.

And the functions are likely to continue expanding and growing. Maybe a legal department, perhaps a security team, a growth team, or any number of distinct organizations within the larger one.

As we add these teams and they grow, we're creating distance between decision makers and our customers. The parts of the company closest to our end users aren't the ones making the decisions anymore. They're focused on running the company, keeping the organizations in place, and often rearranging those organizations. Leadership focuses on broad topics like infrastructure and portfolio management.

So this growth begins to create a gap. Let's call it the company and customer gap, or the distance between an organization and its end users. Leadership now has many levels between it and the customer, making awareness and insights more difficult to come by.

If you've ever played telephone, where you send messages down the line, you know things get scrambled pretty quickly, especially when the people playing the game have incentives to change the message as it goes down the line. They may adapt it consciously or not to suit the resources they need or their particular agenda at the time. It happens.

And gradually, these competing agendas and perspectives start creeping into the products we make. That's where the company-customer gap starts showing up in product designs.

Let's look at this simple contact us form. The requirements were just to have customers contact us. So we needed a way to get back to them, find out who they are, and give them a chance to voice their message. Simple form with a name, a way to contact them that's flexible, and a submit button should probably suffice.

But once the sales team hears about this, they want to make sure that these leads have more information so they can route to the appropriate people inside of their team. They probably want an address, a city, and which department or subject is most appropriate for which sales rep.

As engineering discovers they need to build this contact form, they make the point that usernames are actually stored with first name, last name. And streets need separate fields for number, city, and zip code. So the requirements continue to grow.

Marketing finds out that we're talking to customers, and of course they have some demographic questions to ask so they can segment our users appropriately and send the right messages to them through all their marketing channels. Also gender, date of birth, and a toggle to allow those marketing messages to be sent pop up.

Once legal hears about all the information we're collecting, they definitely are going to require terms of use and a privacy policy acknowledgement. All together, it quickly adds up.

This isn't a new phenomenon. In fact, it was articulated quite a long time ago, in 1967 by Melvin Conway. Conway basically says, organizations that produce designs are going to reflect their organizational structure in those designs.

In other words, everybody ships their org chart.

So as organizations grow, decision making moves further from end users and the structure of our organization start to show up in product designs. Our org charts sometimes become so evident in the user-centered experiences we make, You can smell the departments on what we ship.