Executives in legacy businesses, particularly those who aren't digital-first, often ask me how human-centered design can help them when they aren't shipping digital products. Look no further than the retail fashion chain Zara. 

With over 2200 retail locations you might imagine the logistics and supply chain issues Zara faces are daunting. And you'd be right. Manufacturing and shipping product around the world and getting into stores on pace with customer's desire is a tall order. So how does Zara produce around 450MM items per year and stay ahead of demand? With a human-centered approach to product design, and the ability to rapidly respond to what the market wants.

The key is how closely retail employees listen to customers and send feedback in near-real-time up to management so they can make decisions, fast.

Retail staff reports on what types of items customers have asked for to management each day. This information goes to regional managers, then on up the chain. This daily stream of feedback keeps product designers in tune with what the market wants. If there's an uptick in people in New York City asking for pink scarves, upper management knows within 72 hours.

"Zara’s success relies on keeping a significant amount of its production in-house and making sure that its own factories reserve 85 percent of their capacity for in-season adjustments. In-house production allows the organization to be flexible in the amount, frequency, and variety of new products to be launched." – TradeGecko

With design and manufacturing capacity always available to respond to demand, Zara can create a new product, have enough made to satisfy the perceived demand, and ship those products to the exact stores where the demand exists within about two weeks. That's an amazing response time. Zara calls it "Just in Time Production".

In turn, because everything is produced in lower quantities and limited runs, customers know that if they see something they like in a store they should buy it right then since it won't be on the shelves long.

Now Back to Digital Products

If Zara can do this on a global scale with physical products, any organization can do it with their digital products and services. The tools and processes are mature, inexpensive, and readily available. There's no valid reason for a digital product to languish in mediocrity when it's possible to listen to customers, decide how to respond, and ship updates so quickly.

Organizations need to update legacy methods of collecting feedback through NPS scores and ForeSee surveys and releasing periodic updates based on bundles of features in distinct version numbers. They need to really listen to their customers, report what they hear to management, make smart decisions, and ship updates on a continual basis. That's how the most successful startups work, and there's no reason the enterprise world can't work that way, too.

A recent survey of 500 IT executives finds 58% of enterprises deploy a new build daily, and 26% at least hourly. I'm not sure adoption is quite that high, but at least things are trending in the right direction. 

Want to learn more about how to upgrade your companies ability to ship faster? This ZDNet article is a good place to start.