Focus on the Employee and All Else Will Follow

”Focus on the user and all else will follow”

This simple sentence steers Google in all of its endeavors. But what do these words really mean? To me, the statement tells us that, as users, we unquestionably hold the stakes. We are the focal point of everything.

Undoubtedly, living their mantra has brought Google tremendous success. But what I question is whether there is another principle that we should live by. Is the ”user” really the stakeholder that is most important? Is there another viewpoint that is more powerful?

An organization that has taken a radically different approach is an investment group that employs over 50,000 people worldwide. Like Google, it is active within a wide range of sectors, such as telecom, travel and health & wellness. Its charismatic founder has successfully led the company since 1970 to yearly revenues of $24 billion dollars. The organization is the Virgin Group.

During an interview with INC magazine, Richard Branson, its originator, clearly departed from the zeitgeist of the last decade of customer-centricity. Rather than directly focusing on the ”user” or the ”customer”, Mr. Branson argues that — the employee — is who’s most important. His simple equation is that a happy employee equals a happy customer.

“It should go without saying, if the person who works at your company is 100 percent proud of the brand and you give them the tools to do a good job and they are treated well, they’re going to be happy,” — Richard Branson

Employees are projections of an organization and a brand. What they feel, what they believe is true and what their values are, will be projected in every interaction with customers. Whether we as customers touch a button on a website or talk to a customer service agent, what the organization and the brand stands for, will be resonated.

Design is not just about the external projections of brands: the interfaces and the interactions. Design is also about the internal aspects of the customer experience: the culture and the organization.

As Jared Sinclair eloquently put in a recent blog post, ”Good Design is About Process, not Product”, I argue that good design is also about the employee, not product.

So going back to Mr. Branson’s equation: How do we foster happy employees that will in turn result in happy customers?

To answer that let’s ask a few of questions:

  • What makes us get out of bed in the morning and go to work?
  • What affects us in every decision we make?
  • Why do we choose to go the extra mile to cater for our customers?

The key is motivation. Essentially, if we are not motivated, we are not incentivized to service our customers.

So what triggers us to be motivated?


In Daniel Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, he mentions three factors to spark motivation: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.

Autonomy: Leaders in an organization have trust in you and you have the freedom to make choices about how, where, when and with whom to work.

Mastery: You have a desire to get better and better at something that matters.

Purpose: You can align what you want to achieve to a cause that is greater than yourself.

How can these insights be applied within a design team?

3 Traits of a Successful Design Team

1. You can work autonomously

Autonomy is deeply about trust. If you are a part of an organization that you feel is mistrusting, and you feel that you are being micromanaged, this will ultimately affect your productivity and well-being at work.

As a leader within a design team, it’s therefore pivotal that you and your fellow employees feel that their voices are heard and that they have creative freedom.

Autonomy can be fostered by:

  • Enabling team members to choose to work on projects that are aligned with their career goals
  • Having a workspace that is modular that enables movement within teams
  • Incentivizing designers to work on their side projects during parts of office hours
  • Giving the opportunity to work with new software and methods

2. You feel that you are always learning

Mastery is about continuously elevating your skill-sets, whether it’s a pre-existing one or learning a new. Hence, successful design teams encourage a learning culture by:

  • Enabling knowledge-sharing through internal communication and events
  • Financially supporting trips to conferences and attending courses

3. You have a clear sense of purpose

”Who you are and what you stand for have become just as important as the quality of the products and services that you sell” — Richard Barrett

Every organization has a sense of purpose: a purpose of what we stand for, and where we want to go. As a design leader, it’s your job to relentlessly communicate that the work you do is related to the greater purpose of your organization. You can do this by:

  • Communicating how the daily work positively affects the lives of your customers
  • Continuously communicating your Brand’s Values
  • Defining a set of Design Principles that will govern all design


As leaders within design-driven organizations, the employee should be the first priority, and the focal point. As Richard Branson says: a happy employee equals a happy customer. And a motivated employee is a happy employee. Consequently, you should foster a culture where you can work autonomously, where mastery is promoted, and there is a clear sense of purpose that your work is part of something larger.