Disruptive thinking is an essential UX Skill.

We are at a cross-road in the way we do business; the landscape has changed beyond all recognition in the last 15 years due to a perfect storm of influences.

The mass adoption of the internet has provided immediate access to information and a wider choice of products and services, pushing our customers to expect more from us. They now expect products and services which are tailored to them, accessible at a time, location and through a device or channel that suits them. Anything short of that is inconvenient and your competitors are only a few clicks away.

At the same time, the unreliable, not-good-enough technologies and infrastructure of the past have matured and are now: stable, cheap and easy to implement. Allowing competitors to finance and launch new products and services in months rather than years.

The only way to survive is to adapt to this new world, to think differently from your competitors. To understand: why your customers really buy your products and services, why they reject them and then to select the right product, technology and business processes to give it to them.

Disruptive innovation (which I refer to as disruptive thinking) gives focus to this customer need, and coupled with some UX activities provides the agility to design innovative, customer-focused product propositions. Allowing you to pick off your competitors one by one; regardless of whether you’re an internet start-up or multinational corporation.

Disruption is coming to every industry and if you’re not in the game, you might as well pack up and go home, just ask Kodak.

The problem is that the UX industry is still maturing; it is still to become a proactive partner in this process. Currently, companies hire UX companies or consultants to address tactical goals to design or optimise their website to increase sales, reduce costs and improve customer satisfaction. These companies have already identified an immediate need and are focused on delivering against those goals. UX is seen as a function of the product delivery process. Don’t believe me? Then take a look at the variety of different job specs and associated job titles, most of these are delivery focused.

The solution is for UX to reach out from the delivery process, to become part of the business development process. Disruptive thinking gives us permission to do this, it allows us to flip things on their head to not only ask how do people use our products and service but why?

By asking why we can help our clients to uncover new growth opportunities, to create new products and services or enhance existing ones. Helping them to move their business in new directions to meet untapped customer needs.

For example,

A client sells home entertainment system through an online product catalogue and they’ve noticed that 30% of customer will add different product combinations to their shopping basket and leave without purchasing. They’ve asked you to analyse the shopping basket and purchasing funnel to improve the sales conversion rate.

Tactical thinking:

  • Observe customer using the site and look for obstacles to completion.
  • Redesign the shopping basket and optimise the funnel to improve conversion.

Disruptive thinking

  • Why aren’t people completing the purchase?
  • If they aren’t using the shopping cart to buy things then what are they using it for?
  • Is it to:
    • Gauge the cost of a future purchases?
    • To create a wish list?
    • To understand the aggregated costs of a complex purchase
  • Can we use this insight to create new opportunities to increase sales, reduce cost and improve customer satisfaction?
  • Could we create a home entertainment configuration tool that groups individual elements together in one package for different configurations, room sizes and budgets? Would this increase customer satisfaction by reducing the mental effort for choosing individual elements, while realising a higher profits for the company through predefined bundles?

Disruptive thinking in practice

Here are some retrospective examples from my work on how disruptive thinking could be used to create new opportunities:

Our online purchase funnel for insurance isn’t converting enough people, how do we improve it?

  • Tactical – What are users doing through the purchasing funnel, how do we identifying the functional barriers to completing and optimise the customer journeys to reduce the abandonment rate.
  • Disruptive thinking – What do people buy this insurance for? Does our product meet those needs? What would a product look like that does meet those needs?

Our telephone health information line is costing too much to run, how can we move this to a lower-cost digital channel?

  • Tactical – how can we design and build a website which provides access to high-quality health information.
  • Disruptive thinking – Why do people choose a ‘less convenient’ route to get this information (rather than through the current website or Google)? What support do they get on the phone that they don’t get via the web? What tools could we provide to the call handler to make this process more efficient? What tools do we need to develop to support customer in finding the information they need through existing information resources such as Google?

By asking “why?” we can then use usability testing, contextual enquiries, focus groups and other UX activities to uncover the unmet needs by observing the workarounds, and compensating behaviour that highlights the gaps and creates opportunities for growth, and product innovation.

The UX profession also has the skill to visualise the solution by creating interactive prototypes or product mock-ups to iteratively test and validate the new proposition at a relatively low cost. Ensuring that the customer’s needs are being met.


Disruptive thinking allows companies to find new growth opportunities, by understanding what customers use their products and services for. User Experience allows us to uncover those opportunities, and to provide a rapid mechanism designing and testing them.

Further Reading

  • The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth
  • Disrupt: Think the Unthinkable to Spark Transformation in Your Business

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