Michael Gaigg: Über UI/UX Design


Undercover Boss is User-centered Design at its best

Posted by Michael Gaigg

I'm amazed, though not surprised, how revealing and informative field trips can be. Three episodes into Undercover Boss, a reality TV series by CBS, it becomes obvious how easy it is for upper management to get disconnected from the base, for a CEO to know little to nothing about its employees and their work conditions, for a corporate policy being counterproductive. High-level assumptions don't live up to their expectations, prove to be ineffective, are misinterpreted or simply not useful at all.

Undercover Boss logo

Undercover Boss logo

For all that haven't seen the show yet, each episode of the show features a senior executive at a major corporation working incognito as a new entry-level hire in his or her company for one week, to find out how the company really works and identify some of the unsung heroes among the employees.

Setting the stage

The show usually starts with the CEO of the corporation entering a board meeting revealing his plan to go undercover. I enjoy seeing the directors' mouths dropping with shear fear in their faces of the possible outcome and its consequences. Could it be that they know something might be wrong? Or not perfect?

Learning the hard way

The undercover boss assumes a new identity and with the excuse of being filmed for a documentary on a person working entry-level jobs in several different industries (or similar) starts digging dirt for Waste Mangement, cleaning dishes at Hooters or serving coffee at 7-Eleven.

We see a woman that has to pee in a can for lack of time to make a toilet stop en route, store lights that cannot be replaced within a 30-day window, a restaurant manager having his employees competing in degrading games so the winner can leave early. All examples of failed management and policies with huge potential for change!

We also live with some incredible and heartbreaking stories of inspiring people that are on dialysis or waiting for a kidney transplant but still work hard and motivated. A guy that works long nights to finance his studies but without perspective within the company, something is not going right here.
All these people are invaluable to any company but unfortunately mostly overlooked, another missed chance of finding hidden potential. Some of them with incredible skills that are simply not needed at their current job position but might be essential in another. Where to go?

Overall, the experience is eye-opening and a dedication to humanity, the revelation that every "position" is held by a person, that every "customer relation" is an interaction between people, that every "policy" directly or indirectly affects the life of an employee.


Finally the CEO, overwhelmed by his experiences, seems cleansed by his experiences and vows to correct the disgrace before it becomes outrage. In the show the boss reveals his true identity to the employees and like a big family they watch clips from the show, laugh, cheer and live happily ever after.

Effect on UX

Field studies, a widely accepted and practiced method of user-centered design, seems to find its way into the conscience of the American (and British - the show is based on the 2009 British Channel 4 series of the same name) viewers. It appears as the obvious thing to do.

My very positive take-away from the show is that without knowing, managers, directors and CEO's will ask for more involvement of the base (real people), will involve field studies or user testing in their methodology which surely won't disappointed them. Their insights will improve the live of their employees (the society) and gain considerable business advantages over their competition in the long run.

Am I dreaming or reaching for the stars? Let me know what you think?