13 February 2009

Good Read

Design Matters

You can create a good design, do it once and do it well, and have a nice object. That doesn’t mean it will be a great product or a good business. It might be mildly successful, it might win some awards, and it might even get some buzz on the blogs. The difference between a great product and a merely good product, however, is that a great product embodies an idea that people can understand and learn about—an idea that grows in their minds, one they emotionally engage with. Right now, you could design a product that looks like an iPhone, has really nice details and materials, and becomes an object of lust. However, this doesn’t mean that it will ultimately be successful. Unless you have a strong idea that pervades the way it looks, the way it operates, what it does, how it’s communicated to people, how it’s branded, and how people identify with the brand, your product is not complete, because these are all things that go into making a great product which becomes a good business.

Do You Matter?

Ask yourself questions such as “Who are you?” (which most people can answer) or “What do you do?” (you will probably get this one wrong). You might answer that you’re a manufacturer of computers. Well, we say you’re not merely a manufacturer of computers; you’re creating systems to help people get work done. In light of this, why does what you do matter to people? Better yet, why do you matter at all? This is the deep soul-searching question we want you to ask yourself. Does your company matter to your customers and constituents? Really, honestly, answer this. Are you a positive force in their lives? If you disappeared, would their lives be diminished in some way? I think if you tell yourself the truth, you might even conclude, “Well, probably not.” Will we shed any tears if Cheer laundry detergent is not on the shelves anymore? No, probably not. Will we shed some tears if BMW suddenly ceased to exist? Yeah, we might. If Apple ceased to exist? Probably.

How to Matter

The crucial point of the evolving iPod story is that if you want to transform your brand to the point where you matter, you have to start with design that’s “designed in” not “added on.” It can’t be a veneer. Design is not an event or a process you apply to physical and mechanical reality. You are designing a customer experience supply chain. If you are the CEO and this is something you really want to do, it’s not just a matter of getting together your executive staff and saying, “Go design some good stuff.” You have to look at your business from beginning to end and see how it all relates to your customer; then you must decide how you will design all the pieces of a customer experience solar system and go about accomplishing true organizational change.

Being Design Driven

Design is everybody’s business. And if a CEO is going to do it right, he or she needs to understand this. As you think about becoming a more design-driven company, you can use baby steps and big steps. But if you want to know in a nutshell, what do you need to do; you must build a development process that centers on people and an experience. You must give everyone an incentive to be an active part of this process. You must build a marketing process that can characterize and communicate those design ideas to people emphasizing design as an integral part of it all. You need to build an engineering system that understands that the people driving design sensibility and values are, at the same time, part of the marketing, engineering, manufacturing, and delivery equations.

Your Brand is Not Your Logo

Another way to look at brand is that it is like an individual’s character. That’s really what a brand is, the embodiment of a company’s character. When you think of the character of people, you find things about them that encourage you to like or dislike them. When you first meet someone, you might draw a few conclusions based on how they dress and style their hair, and few more of their mannerisms. A lot of times you’re right, and a lot of times you’re not. But then, as you gain real insight into their ethics and values and how they treat others, you begin to understand the person’s character. That’s how you really start to define how you feel about somebody. It’s the same way with a company. You can dress up people in cool clothes, and give them a hip new hairstyle, and create some ideas about, “Wow, maybe they’re really pretty cool and hip,” but as you really start to get to know them, you realize that, “No, they’re really moving violations of the truth in packaging laws.” All this is a veneer. You start to wonder about them. It’s the same thing with companies.

Products As Portals

That was how Howard Schultz’s head was working when he visited Milan and said, “This is an experience coffee customers would be willing to pay a little more to share.” Both Alice Waters and Howard Schultz were CEOs of their companies in the sense that they were chief experience officers in the conception of their businesses. Schultz arrived at the Starbucks experience. How brilliant was that? Well, in retrospect it seems one of those things that’s incredibly obvious, but what a few other people probably realized, namely that the coffee shop was about more than getting coffee, Schultz and Starbucks implemented brilliantly. Schultz didn’t think he was in the coffee business, he was in the experience business, and the portal into that experience was a better cup of coffee in a carefully designed atmosphere. We are reminded of our favorite Mae West line here; “I used to be Snow White and then I drifted.” Starbucks has drifted. It remains to be seen if they can rebuild the experience and survive commoditization.

Your Products and Services are Talking to People

So you start thinking about which companies have product lines with design integrity, authority, and self-confidence showing through every aspect of their design, and now you are beginning to understand about design communication and why it matters. It’s about a story— you see, the thing that is hard for most business people to grasp, is that the design language is there to tell a story. It takes a customer’s need or desire and spins its story all the way to an expected fulfillment. Any writing class will tell you too that it is always better to “show” instead of just “tell.” That’s the exact function of design language. It shows. For that shopper at the BMW lot, the scenario playing through the mind might involve a drive up a winding Pennsylvania road in late spring, cornering the switchbacks with tight accuracy while the sound system fills the slick cockpit interior, finally pulling up to a country inn for brunch and being recognized as one of the “Bimmer” elite by fellow patrons.

Building a Design Driven Culture

When you seek to balance risk and research on the path to originality, it’s no easy feat. Many companies employ a management technique where with every project, they set up the boundary conditions, usually around cost and schedule, and there will also be technology conditions. But there is a problem if the development teams see these as hard boundaries. At Apple, we used to say to the team “it’s all right to play in this field; if you cross one of these boundaries, a red flag goes up and we just need to review it and understand it.” This didn’t mean you couldn’t cross a boundary. You just need to know when you have crossed one. More than risk mitigation, you need a program for risk support. If you are going to be design driven to create original products and services, your favorite new mantra needs to be: “Risk is not a four-letter word.”

Go Forth and Matter

Over the years, we have found ourselves in conversations organized around the question, “what is it that people really want out of life?.” Marketers ask this question and promote their answers. So do psychologists. Theologians of course claim to know. And more than a few of the rest of us seek our own answers every day. It is a complex question, pondered for centuries by individuals and groups more qualified to offer answers than the authors of this book. This said, however, we do think we know the answer to that question. Or at least an answer that matters to your business. This answer has been given thematically throughout this book. It has been implicit, but now we would now like to explicitly propose it: People are seeking a great experience of being alive.

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