As consumers grow increasingly accustomed to products that look good and work well, market-leading companies and their design teams must provide something more -- well-designed customer experiences that evoke emotional attachment. The global advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi has put its finger on this new competitive standard by stating that the future belongs to products and services with "love marks" -- emotional connections that go beyond brand loyalty.
Can such emotional connections be forged by design? Of course they can. Companies like Coca-Cola (KO), Google (GOOG), Apple (AAPL), BMW, Ben & Jerry's, eBay (EBAY), Nike (NKE), and Harley-Davidson (HDI) -- as well as such lesser-known brands as Bose, Vespa, and Umpqua Bank -- do it very well by designing great customer experiences. They have devoted fans who would protest if a product or service were changed or discontinued, or if a new product failed to live up to expectations. That's what fueled the initial public outcry over the new BMW 7 Series.
iPOD ICON. What goes into such potent design? Today, it begins with quality, usability, and reliability, and then moves way beyond. In the past, these design elements encompassed all a company needed. Now design must also include intimacy, sensory delight, drama or surprise, genuine care for the customer, and a sense of shared values.
The iPod makes a great example of this new design dictum -- the design of a total experience -- because at each touch point you find the qualities of a great customer experience:
Intimacy. Apple packages the iPod like a gift, not in a heat-sealed, rigid plastic clamshell you need a bayonet to cut open. The message: You deserve a present, not suspicion that you're a shoplifter.
Sensory delight. Most molded plastic products have a parting line or seam that makes for efficient manufacturing. Apple wanted the iPod to feel great in the hand, so it put the seam out of your way.
Drama or surprise. The iPod's metal back adds a bit of tactile drama. At first it feels cool to the touch, then warms up as if it were alive. In winter, it feels cooler, making the warm-up more dramatic.
Care for the customer. Apple went out of its way to spare users from typical aggravations. The iPod has its controls where you can't touch them accidentally, plus a great intuitive interface and even name tags on the connectors, so you can get started easily.
Shared values. The iPod's packaging features recycled paperboard, so you can enjoy innovation without polluting the earth.
Apple skillfully designed all these small touches to add up to a gratifying experience for customers who "think different" -- and don't most of us like to believe that we do? With these special experiences in common, iPod owners form something of a tribe, recognizable by their dangling white headphone cords.
TRASH THAT TRANSCENDS. It has been reported that products that engage people emotionally can charge anywhere from 20% to 200% more than their competitors do -- and still easily outsell them. Sure enough, the iPod commands a premium price but flies off shelves. Affection can also be fleeting, however, and the iPod love affair may find itself tested if points of irritation, such as problems with the battery, arise to sour the relationship.
Great consumer experiences can reside in the most unlikely places with the most unlikely products. Take bubble wrap. People love it. Open any box, take out the bubble wrap, and play with it, as people do. The squeezing and pinching is sensual and intimate. It has drama and surprise -- you squeeze a little, squeeze a little more, and...pop! You never know when some bubble wrap will arrive, so it always feels like a treat.
Strictly speaking, bubble wrap is trash. Yet people make time to pop the bubbles. They often save some to play with it later, or give it to someone else. All that from a low-price product with no applied brand whatsoever!
How does one design those magical elements into a product? By remembering that a product experience, like any experience, represents a blend of sense impressions, anxieties, memories, and wishes. When clients ask us to design "a better experience" for their customers, we know this means many different things, all of them equally important.
ROLE-PLAYING. So our design teams use a range of disciplines and research methods, such as ethnographic day-in-the-life studies, video cameras in the shower, and a chat in the kitchen. We do this to understand the experiences people are already having and the experiences they really want to have. Only then do we set to work conceptualizing, testing, and refining ideas for new or improved products people will love.
In my own 35 years as a designer, I have learned to think of design as much more than making products beautiful. I aim to create a beautifully choreographed experience. The best-loved products are not sculptures but actors playing different roles at different times -- friend, assistant, playmate, companion.
At Design Continuum, we've had the chance to help companies choreograph some great customer-product interaction. Moen, a manufacturer of kitchen and bathroom fixtures, came to us wondering how to provide the best possible showering experience.
SHOWERING WITH LOVE. Team members with backgrounds in design, engineering, anthropology, usability, and business conducted a study. We actually observed volunteers taking showers at home. We interviewed people shopping for showerheads. We built an in-house shower lab and took countless showers (with bathing suits). We measured water temperature, skin temperature, and time perception.
The result -- the Revolution showerhead -- has turned into a huge success for Moen. It has devoted fans. Hotel guests have reportedly asked to switch to a room with a Moen showerhead. We received two IDEA Design Excellence Awards for the Moen Revolution, one for the product itself and one for the design research project that led to it.
Designing a great customer experience also means going beyond traditional market research -- what people say they want -- to find out what they dream of wanting. Some time ago, Procter & Gamble (PG) asked us to study a less pleasant experience associated with water: cleaning floors.
THE SWIFFER SYNDROME. Our team went to work studying dirt, watching people clean, and talking to them about drudgery. We all cleaned floors (which wasn't as much fun as taking showers). Unsurprisingly, we learned that people find mopping messy and unpleasant. Surprisingly, we discovered that all that messy water doesn't actually remove dirt very well.
This insight led to the design of the Swiffer brand of waterless cleaning products, an immediate and lasting success for Procter & Gamble. It had first-year sales of $200 million, and P&G now earns more than $500 million annually from the brand. The Swiffer has die-hard fans around the world because it delivers all the qualities of a great customer experience.
The Swiffer seems magical. "How can it work without water?" consumers ask. It feels delightful, because it's so light. Swiffers go where mops and vacuum cleaners won't fit, and people find changing the cloth much easier than wringing a mop or replacing a bag. Kids love to pick it up and start cleaning, giving many parents not only a bit of long-overdue help but also a moment of sharing with a child.
DESIGNING FANTASIES. The Swiffer's development contains an important message. We're often asked to advise companies that hope design can help them fend off their competition. We usually find they have instructed their talented in-house designers to "give the customers what they ask for." But that's often not enough. Customers cannot always express the desires that lead to radical innovation. No one in our studies actually asked for a lightweight waterless mop that kids would like.
Companies facing tough competition will come out on top by discovering what consumers are dreaming of -- even when those customers don't know they're dreaming of it yet -- and fulfilling those desires by orchestrating new and endearing experiences. That's design.