Design as a differentiator is not new. Design thinking has been around since Thomas Edison. Of course Apple has been the modern story on design being a unique business differentiator. But none of us are Steve Jobs, the one-of-a-kind CEO artist. Companies from Dyson to Toyota have leveraged user centered design in their product development for years. Design thought became so prevalent that Fast Company changed their information architecture to build a dedicated section within their corporate site.
What is new is that good design - as a result of consumerism - is now expected.
We all understand immediately when a web site doesn’t work in our modern browser. We chafe at features in a new car that don't make sense. We delete apps that crash on our mobile devices. We return products that do not work as advertised. We are turned off by videos that play automatically or avatars that talk over our own navigation of a web site. There is no quicker way to get users to hit the ‘back’ button on their browser then to demonstrate that the developer did not either possess the skills to make a site that worked well or didn’t care enough to understand their audience. We see enough good design to recognize mediocre when we encounter it today.
Most businesses have ROI metrics for how well their online sales do versus what it cost to build and support. But how many measure the cost of bad design? The user interface can cost your business lost sales if it is hard to understand. Jakob Nielsen has been saying it for decades, but bad design costs businesses money. Throw the wrong content into bad design and you have customer fleeing your brand for your competitors.
In his Wall St Journal article, John Herr riffs on the next frontier of design as 'ambient technology' like wearable tech (i.e. Fitbit, Jawbone, fitbug) and how many of them demonstrated they understand the value of good design by delivering elegant first generation products. As a result of SaaS and cloud based tools even enterprise software has turned its focus on simplifying their products. The outliers are fewer and farther between. Blackberry's historic decline coincided with iOS and Android being user friendly and expandable. Have you ever used a Bloomberg terminal? I know of Fortune 500 companies that still have code bases from the 1990's. It is only a matter of time before a couple of smart folks in a garage build a better mouse trap.
Design is a way for almost every category of company to separate itself from their market. But it is not as easy as reading Walter Isaacson’s biography on Steve Jobs and getting design religion. Companies need to have design culture instilled in their DNA to really do this right. I am tired of executives telling me they want to build their company and brand like Apple when the exec has no understanding or appreciation of how a user centered business operates. There are still plenty of impostors putting lipstick on their pig and touting their customer experience as a business foundation.
Design differentiation is not just about your product or your web site. It is not the color of your logo being Pantone perfect. Design differentiation is about all the places a customer experiences your company. From phone call, to email marketing, to a tradeshow booth to sales presentation to project management and customer support.
From ease-of-acquisition to ease-of-use products to ease-of-support, it is really hard - and very expensive to build a design culture focused on customer needs. But when we come in contact with one, we recognize it immediately. Think Zappos, Disney, Amazon, Ritz Carlton, Nordstrom and of course Apple.
Design can be a unique differentiation and a distinct competitive advantage. Entrepreneurs who make the end-to-end customer experience easy and understandable will win.
Rob Norris has been in the web development business since 1994 and has experience improving web-based solutions for financial services, ecommerce, data products and online healthcare. His opinions can be found on LinkedIn as well as Twitter @vialogix.