Skip to content

Finding the "connective tissue" in human experience

Markus Grupp on the importance of facilitating understanding in design—and knowing when algorithms and process aren’t enough.

Words by Carrie Neill, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons

For Markus Grupp, a well-designed experience has always been paramount. In fact, one of Grupp’s most vivid childhood memories is the time he was, well, underwhelmed, by an experience he was expecting to be more transformative: the first time he tried on a pair of Nike’s famous 90’s sneaker, the “Air Jordan.”

“I put them on three times, assuming that air would actually come into the soles when I stepped down into them,” Grupp recalls. “But—no. They were actually just an air cushion. I thought, ‘that doesn’t seem right.’”

So Grupp took to his sketchbook, working out a series of designs for how the shoes could incorporate intake valves on the sides, and actually, as he’d expected “put air into your feet.”

It’s not surprising then, that Grupp is currently the Director of Experience Design at Indigo Books & Music, the Canadian retail chain that’s been lauded for their ability to create memorable in-store experiences for customers. That, industry experts speculate, is the reason Indigo has been able to do what few other bookstores have in recent years—expand. This past fall, the chain announced they would be opening five stores in the U.S. market.

dscout caught up with Grupp to chat about the importance of customer interaction, where design needs to be flexible, and why books are a connective tissue to our lives.

dscout: You've worked in design and UX in a number of different industries, and design often means different things within different organizations. But the human element is always at the center, right? It’s always about making people's lives better.

Markus Grupp: Design is powerful in a lot of ways, but one of the most interesting to me is when you bring people along in the process, especially when it comes to designing experiences. Then it becomes more about facilitation and co-creating a solution. At Indigo, the focus is on the retail experience, and how people interact with employees in the store. So, when we’re thinking about that process and experience, we’re talking to the team members who are out there "handselling" on the sales floor. 

Prior to Indigo I led the service design team at TELUS, a Canadian national telecom company, so we’d look at things like experience of an installer coming to put high-speed internet service into your house. Designing for that experience adds another level of complexity, because you actually need to think about how an installer is going to teach a customer to use their internet. You’re designing a way to teach someone to have the experience you’ve designed. It becomes more important than ever to bring people along in that design process. That, to me, is the exciting part. When you become the facilitator, and you get people who aren't designers exposed to the process, and enable them to deliver great experiences. Even without you being there.

That’s interesting, especially when you think about someone like the installer, the person who has to teach the customer to use the product. Encouraging them to think about the customer experience is an opportunity for them to “nerd out,” and really get inside the minds of users and help improve the process.

Absolutely, and I think it’s really eye-opening. A lot of companies put distance between their employees and their customers. Often it’s with good intentions, because you don't want everyone in an organization reaching out to customers. But at a lot of organizations, there are individuals—like employees on pricing, marketing or operations teams—whose work directly impacts the customer but who never have any exposure to the customer. 

What we found is by actually empowering those people to lead an interview and connect with the customer, it changes their view altogether. I think too often we start to look at data alone. There are all these different characterizations of our customers or our users. And when we do that, we can almost abstract the things that make these people human. What motivates them? What are their basic needs? What are the things that frustrate them in daily life? At Indigo, we’ve sent everyone from executives to new grads out into the stores themselves to observe how people are interacting with the physical space, to hear the conversations they’re having with sales reps, and to understand what technology they're using and how they’re using it.

Those experiences can turn customers from market segments or user personas into real human beings.

Markus Grupp

Those experiences can turn customers from market segments or user personas into real human beings. If someone can share anecdotes about a real person that they spoke with, that helps them understand the pain points so much more than when a UX researcher shares customer insights.

It’s putting the human experience first both for the customer and for the employee.

Exactly. If you want to create a great customer experience, you really need to focus on the employee experience too. Sometimes it’s just the basic human things.

Let’s talk about the human experience, because that’s one of the things that’s foundational to the retail industry, but the book industry in particular. Thinking about what to read next is a very personal decision. On top of that, you’re working on designing two pretty completely different retail experiences for customers, in terms of physical bookstores and shopping online.

Absolutely. The underlying need, whether you’re shopping online, or in a store, is similar. You’re looking for your next great read, you’re looking for inspiration. What’s different is how customers actually solve for those needs. The online experience is great for immediacy, and convenience. But one thing the online experience doesn’t give you is the human experience that you get in a store, with one of our customer experience reps. The most seasoned ones especially, they’re bibliophiles with this incredible knowledge of a vast number of books, and they can say to a customer: “If you liked this book, try this one next.” Maybe it’s because of the theme, or setting, or pace, or because one author is similar to another. But they can draw these connections which aren't evident to algorithms and metadata. And that’s something that’s lacking in the online experience.

It seems like part of the challenge stems from the fact that books are different in some pretty substantial ways from other products. It can be much more complex to recommend a book that you think will work for someone as opposed to a product whose attributes you can list and cross reference. It’s a question that needs a human element to help solve for it, because what you like to read is about more than one thing. It’s taste, and style, and ideas.

Exactly. The pure algorithm of “You bought this, so you’ll like this,” or “People who bought X also liked Y”—it’s too rudimentary. It's kind of accurate, but not really. We’ll sit with users and go through those recommendations and they’ll say, “I understand how the algorithm made that connection, but it's actually missing the mark.” Or, “You know, that book just didn't do it for me.” That’s the piece where that human element of understanding really resonates.

The other thing to realize is that books play a much larger role in people’s lives, and they connect to other interests. As a company, we’re leaning into that where we can. We’ve broadened our retail operations and increasingly focused on lifestyle products. Cooking products, wellness products, toys—all of those things connect into books. If you're buying a Jaime Oliver cookbook, then getting a Le Creuset pot is a natural fit. Books really are a connective tissue to different parts of people's lives.

Speaking of different parts of people’s lives... The Prosper Lab is a skills accelerator that you co-founded for Toronto citizens living in poverty. It sounds like the kind of experience that changes the way that you think about how you do things and how you work.

Yes—that really is the passion project.

How did it get started?

There's an inner-city neighborhood in East Toronto called Regent Park, and I've taught design to grade school students there for years. My co-founder, Chenny Xia, was volunteering at the Yonge Street Mission, a soup kitchen drop-in center, and they asked her to teach a teamwork class to some of the at-risk community members. Because often the biggest obstacle for people in the community to getting any sort of sustainable employment is actually the ability to work with other people. One thing we heard consistently from some of the community members was that a lot of them wanted to start their own businesses, and be their own bosses, be independent. So that sparked the idea of having the community members start a business, and supporting it so that the teamwork and collaboration skills would develop.

It was very much about adapting elements of that design process. We saw, early on, that these individuals aren't often asked for their ideas or opinions. They're very much told what to do. It’s much different when someone is saying, “What do you think we could do?” It took a while, but eventually they realized that they were in a safe space and could start sharing their own ideas.

We took a beginner’s mindset to what to make the business about. Because we’d talk through certain ideas, and folks would put up their hands and say, “I don't have a food handlers license, so I don't think I'd feel comfortable making food.” Other folks would say “I don’t have any sewing skills, so let’s not do something with sewing.” But none of us knew how to make candles. We watched YouTube videos and started to experiment. And the first couple weeks were frustrating, we were only making four or five candles. But it was through that process, of trying to learn to do something, and make it halfway decent, that the teamwork piece came through. It really provided that learn-by-doing environment. Then we realized that we actually had to try to sell the candles. One of the team members had the idea that we could sell them at a local market. So we did that, and started to really expand the scope of the safe space for the members.

Initially with the project we were really focused on communication skills, but the big takeaway that we came away with was that it was actually the confidence building that was the most critical for the team members. A couple of them were just really inside their own shell. They really struggled to communicate. But having had the opportunity to talk with people in a safe space, and practice, as part of a team, they became more much more comfortable talking to people they didn’t know and getting into parts of the city they actually hadn't ever seen before, even though they were relatively close geographically, and being able to feel comfortable there.

We had one team member who went back to school for the first time in 40 years. Another got a part-time job after four months, and now he's got a full-time job as a cook in a local chain restaurant. One individual started a t-shirt business. It's been incredible to see that personal growth. It’s been emotional. It's been trying at times. But it's incredible, getting to take the things that we do as designers and apply it to a much bigger problem.

You mentioned using elements of the design process, and communication being a focus. Were there ways you adapted the process from how you might run something for a corporate client?

Absolutely. Part of what was essential was realizing when design wasn’t enough, knowing when we needed to bring in counselors, or find other ways to support team members. We can't just list design principles and make those fit.

We had one of those eye-opening experiences the first week, when we were doing a couple of warm-up activities with post-it notes. When we do design sessions with executives or customers, that’s a pretty standard part of the design workshop. But we realized quickly that a handful of people in the room couldn’t actually read or write. We needed to be more in tune with the group, and to change the way we ran the process itself. 

And some weeks we realized that it wasn't about the program or making candles. Some weeks we were just there as someone to listen to, as a friend, as someone they could talk to. I think as we built those relationships, we realized how important it is to be able to change the way you facilitate and run a process like this. In a corporate setting, you're very much focused on keeping the process moving. At The Prosper Lab, we have to be very responsive and adaptive to the needs of the participants. It’s really about developing a sense of empathy and belonging for everyone.

Carrie Neill is a New York based writer, editor, design advocate, bookworm, travel fiend, dessert enthusiast, and a fan of People Nerds everywhere.

Subscribe To People Nerds

A weekly roundup of interviews, pro tips and original research designed for people who are interested in people

The Latest