Think Big

Want to hook customers? Remember that good design isn't simply about the product -- it's about the entire business environment

With the increasing focus on delivering good customer experiences in the marketplace, classic distinctions between design and business are disappearing. Look at some of the best operators today, and the distinction is almost nonexistent. Take TiVo: The company understands that a subscription-based business model depends on a well-designed customer experience that goes far beyond the box.

The seamless way TiVo's systems update complex programming schedules is as important to the user experience as elements such as its easy onscreen interface. Behind every great customer experience is a tight coupling of product, service, brand expression, and business system. In other words, of design and business.

Designing for business is essential because a great experience should not be a veneer or a hollow shell built to disguise an otherwise unremarkable product or service. A customer experience is the sum of many things working in concert to create something true, authentic, and compelling. User delight must be designed into every element in a fractal way. Not just the user-facing offering, but the product line, information systems, service and support, marketing communications -- everything that will influence what customers hear, see, and feel.


Jet Blue understands this. All airlines do a good job of flying us safely, but what we remember are tortuous gate delays, rude staff, and the roller hockey nature of the boarding process. An enormous amount of energy has been spent in the design of the elements that enables the physical act of flying, but little has gone into the back-end business processes, which, if thought through from the customer's point of view, could bring the rest of the experience up to par.

In contrast, Jet Blue's back-end reservations, personnel, and logistics systems were all designed with an empathic understanding of the needs of not just the passenger but everyone with a role in the flight experience, from pilots to service agents. This means that all these elements don't just work but function in a synergistic way to create the magic of good experience.

The hit rate for new market innovations could be much higher if as much energy was focused on designing for back-end business fit as is typically spent on market-facing expressions. Particularly with complex experiences, this requires considering the needs of end users, and everyone else who shapes the overall experience of a player in the business system: employees, partners -- even competitors.

NetFlix' success as a new venture was due to much more than a great Web site with peer-to-peer recommendations and "long tail" filtering. What set the company apart was the ability to design a business system that worked with the existing postal infrastructure to create a remarkable DVD delivery experience. Understanding the needs of everyone in a business ecosystem doesn't imply satisfying them all equally -- that's a prescription for paralysis -- but designing for balance in the ecosystem does increase the odds of a venture's success.

At the nexus of innovation where design and business meet, three principles emerge.

1. Ensure desirability for users

The design of successful business systems begins where good design thinking always does: from a point of empathy for end users. This means getting insights by going out into the world to understand and observe people interacting with products, services, and environments. The insights that led to the Sony (SNE) Walkman (and its progeny, the iPod) didn't come from traditional market research but from observing behavior. Empathy is the wellspring of value creation.

2. Balance desirability for stakeholders

As your user-centered point of view develops, cast a wider net. Add in empathic insights for all the stakeholders in the business ecosystem: employees, shareholders, business partners, society, even government. What does each person and entity want and need in order to make this thing fly?

Amazon (AMZN) is a shining example of the value of designing back-end systems that meet the needs of customers and business partners. Their affiliate program makes it a snap for an individual blogger to partner with Amazon to sell books. This makes Amazon and the blogger more money and delights blog readers with appropriate book recommendations.

3. Iterate for viability

Developing a great experience requires us to apply the "rapid prototyping" philosophy from the world of physical product development to the task of designing viable businesses. Running quick experiments is a great way to figure out how, when, and why our new experience offering will make money. Pretend for a moment that you're a founder of Skype (EBAY) just beginning to design their VoIP system. Should users pay in the form of a one-time transaction, an ongoing subscription, advertising, or not at all? What would the Skype experience have been, for example, if its creators had decided to charge up front for access? How would you know?

Rather than placing a big bet and swinging for the fence, proceed as design thinkers do, which is to create something quick and cheap, show it to real people, and roll the learning back into the venture.When used as an integral part of the design process of new experiences, iterative experimentation can have a dramatic effect on the viability of whatever ends up going to market. As a case in point, Whole Foods (WFMI) is rolling out bigger new stores in large part because of their greater capacity for experimentation and learning.


Ready answers may not exist for most of the key questions that matter to your users and ecosystem -- which means that you'll have to design experiments (think of Google's (GOOG) ongoing Gmail beta) to get real information from real people about what works, and then iterate until full business viability is realized.

To meet the rising bar of customer experience, organizations must embrace this holistic approach to designing for business. It's when a company's products, services, brand, and supply chain work together -- think Apple (AAPL) or Target (TGT) -- that the experience is more than the sum of its parts.

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