You know how every once in a while you hear one of those statistics about how lazy and tv-obsessed Americans are and you think “how is that even possible?” Like the one that said 40% of Americans will sit and watch a television show they don’t like just because they don’t want to change the channel? Well I guess the disclaimer here should be that I think I might be one of those people. I’m not a tv-holic necessarily (I haven’t had cable since I was in college, and have lived long stretches of time with nothing but a laptop for entertainment without complaint), but when I do turn on the tv, it amazes me the shit that I will get sucked into watching. The truth of this can be seen in the hours of American Idol I’ve logged over the last couple of years, the fact that I now know what a biathlon is despite having grown up in Florida in complete ignorance of winter sports, or the that just last night I sat through the entire first half of the Marriage Ref (to see just how bad it really was, I told myself).

But Undercover Boss actually peaked my interest as soon as they started airing commercials for its series premier, and I went out of my way to make sure that I watched the first episode. Why? Because the show is essentially an exercise in user-centered design.

What these bosses are experiencing is the first step to user-centered design – empathy.

First, the show creates empathy. That’s the “break-through” that these bosses are experiencing, and it’s one of the first steps to a user-centered design methodology. It doesn’t necessarily have to be wrapped up in the emotional life story of a young woman struggling to provide for her family while doing the work of two job descriptions (that’s more for effect), but it does have to be tangible. Explaining how a person thinks or operates is one thing – and it will get you pretty far in creating empathy – but seeing people operate in real life, the way that ethnographers do, the observers have to be inhuman not to walk away feeling like they truly understand where that person is coming from.

Second, the employees in the show are stakeholders. Interviewing stakeholders is a great place to start when undertaking a UX project, in my case, one that’s meant to redesign a system that’s expected to achieve certain goals towards the mission or bottom line of a company. Most clients agree. But where I often find that C-level executives get confused is in the definition of who the stakeholders really are. (Maybe the word is just to similar to stockholder?) What they often get wrong is that a stakeholder isn’t just a person who is high-up in or understands the marketing-speak of the company – they are not the most influential or “important” people there – they can be anyone who’s life or job is affected by the system being designed, even if it is in the most mundane way like fielding customer service complaints or doing data-entry. The lowest-level employees are stakeholders, and often the most important ones.

Third, the problems the boss is observing are design problems. The mandates that come down the company latter don’t have to be at odds with the humanity of the work environment that they sometimes unintentionally create. In observing the problems the show put forth it’s obvious that many of them, whether through incremental change or a massive overhaul, can be solved now that they’ve been identified. What I hope that CEOs understand is that those solutions don’t have to hurt productivity, and can in fact have a very positive effect once your employees’ natural capabilities and limitations are taken into account. It’s a fact, women working typically male-dominated jobs are going to have some more extensive toiletry needs that need to be taken into account, and I’m sure that someone out there is already doing the work to make sure that they are. (Or, maybe not.)

This show is incredibly relevant, but not just to people who are interested in user-centered design. As a society we are constantly trying to reconcile our capitalist beliefs with our humanist natures, and the US often gets the worst rap when it comes to “willful” ignorance of exploitative practices. Whether through design or through blunder, seeing CEOs meet their day of reckoning in the public eye, and the extent to which they are held accountable for their company practices is becoming an integral part of the puzzle that is consumer behavior. It’s much more enjoyable to be a part of these epiphanies as they unfold than to just cringe at the aftermath. If ignorance is part of the problem, then let’s at least give these guys a chance to smarten up, then see whether that day of reckoning still comes.

Somebody very smart out there is watching every episode of this show, and calling each CEO and their marketing teams to offer their UX design services.