A strong experience is an important, often key factor to the success of an endeavour like a start-up or launching a new service or brand. People walk away from an interaction with a company that offers a weak experience – irrespective of whether the company has designed it or not. If it is a strong enough experience, they will talk about it – not just “Like” it online but tell their friends about it. Designing the experience will make it more likely that they say nice things rather than talk about frustration, false promises, or unsatisfying service.
This article is aimed at people who agree with this. If your company’s success is built on data, low prices, technical superiority or other factors which you believe make designing an experience unnecessary, you may not find much value here. However, I welcome you and invite you to comment just the same.
A couple of years ago I was working with a major brand in its market. My team had been trying to find the best lever to use to begin building them up from a relatively unpopular brand in their market to a more positive one. The first point of attack we decided on was the website.
In big companies, there is no such point that should be isolated. Taking a simplified example – the Product Design should consider risk, marketing and shareholder relations; Marketing should look at R&D, manufacturing & distribution, and user expectations; and website design has to look at brand positioning, marketing, product pricing and so on. These are all simplified lists of responsibilities. They could very easily go on and on. The point is that doing anything effectively in a big company should mean looking at and perhaps co-evolving just about every aspect of the way the company does business. It is also nearly impossible. Too many teams work in silos. Castles would be a more appropriate image because they not only have a hard time seeing outside but they defend their territories from outsiders looking in.
We tried to understand the company’s goals. We looked for how they perceived their clients and how they wanted that relationship to change over time. We constantly butted up against resistance. “Why are you considering brand positioning? You are UX guys working on the website. Positioning is none of your business.”
We take Experience Design to be design for emotion. We work to understand who the target user is, what motivates them and what they might be afraid of. We examine their decision-making process and the importance of things like Social Support vs Feeling Independent, Trend Setting vs Trend Following vs Trend Ignoring, and so on. It is usually essential for us to understand the product or service (I will call any commercial output of a company “product” from here on). Its placement among the competition in terms of quality, price and all that. And this is important to understand, the difference between how a company perceives itself vs how the target market sees it. In short, everything a company is and does can affect the experience. When working on the website we had no illusions that we could change much of this, but it was vital for us to understand. Again, the site for us was just the tip of the lever. We would use it to begin shifting things to create a positive experience which would help build a more positive reputation. A long-haul project which the company itself knew was necessary.
To answer the question for the curious, we failed miserably. However, that is another story. What I took from that experience is the need to explain things much better, and to understand that not everyone agrees. Fair enough.
The relationship between what a company does and the experience it provides is so evident to me I all too often forget it is not clear to others.
Brand, Product, and Marketing
Experience is the sum of emotions felt while interacting with a thing, a brand, an event, … life. The critical thought is “emotions”. Without our feelings, we have no experience. For a brand, it is important to understand that only a portion of the elements that influence our feelings regarding our brand is under our control. Much of what creates an experience for a person is external, and some elements are purely internal to the person. For instance, Alice buys a new coat. She has wanted it for some time and now found what she thinks of as a good price. She has anticipated possessing the thing and wanted a good price to help justify the purchase to herself – two factors that may not be directly under our control. She is very happy. She shows off her coat to a friend who may:
- A) Compliment her and congratulate her on the great deal she found. OR
- B) Tell her it is “so last year” and say she saw the coat for less money.
We cannot control what her friend says, but it contributes to Alice’s experience of the coat and the brand that made it and the brand that sold to her. Indeed, what her friend says can actually determine whether Alice or her friend, ever buy from those brands again.
However, though we cannot control what the friend says, we can anticipate it, and we can influence how Alice feels about negative responses. We can do this by giving Alice relevant products, beliefs, or counter-arguments. In other words, we can influence external factors which are not strongly under our control. These would be elements of our experience design with which we work to create the actual experience.
Creating such an experience is an individual process for every brand. The descriptions in this article are all schematic and broad brush views of the subject. I can think of successful exceptions to every point I will make. In experience design, like anything else, there are methods and practices that tend to but do not guarantee to increase chances of success. There are successful efforts that have done things differently but doing so is usually extremely risky and can be even more expensive.
Brand identity usually begins with the reasons why the people working on the project are doing it. It starts with Simon Sinek’s “Why?”. Beyond profit, why are you, as an individual (not brand) doing this? The core people in the team should have similar answers. This is harder in a corporate environment, where the tempting answer might be “Because my boss [told me to, gave me a great opportunity,…]”. If you do not have a strong emotional motivation yourself for doing what you are doing, then you need to invent one you can “convert” to or fake well. For startups, I think it is more important to have a strong answer to “Why?”. The work is hard, especially for a startup. The chance of failure is high. Having a strong reason to do it beyond just profits will help you do it better.
This is not marketing copy. Your real, personal answer may or may not ever be shared. That is a decision we have not yet come to.
There are several reasons why the WHY is important.
As Sinek says, people “buy the why”. This may not be true of everyone, but it is entirely accurate for a significant subset at least. When people like you, like a company or brand on a personal emotional level, they will go the extra mile for you. Importantly, they will feel something beyond you being a simple provider of a product.
People will form an idea of what kind of company or brand you are whether you create that identity or not. In fact, your competition may create your identity if you leave a vacuum for them to fill. The one they form is not likely to be the one you would want in which case you will spend time and money fighting your own identity.
Just as with people, identity is hard to shake. “Once a ____ always a ____” is a common human belief. Google worked hard to create two images, that of a bleeding edge innovator and “Don’t be evil.” Those images hold despite Google selling personal information for advertising, buying a bunch of military robot companies and not inventing or significantly re-inventing a new consumer product line in years. In another case, the image shared by the older, large banks in the Czech Republic was primarily created by their disruptive competitor, Airbank. Today they have to struggle against the image of being overpriced and uncaring despite having prices nearly the same as Airbank and spending far more money on customer-focussed initiatives.
The identity of a company would be something like its personality if the company were a character in a story. What things, people, and values are essential to that character? What will the company-character do to succeed? What will it risk or sacrifice and for what or for whom? What “tribe” (the brand’s “in crowd”) is this brand part of and what role does it play in that tribe (leader, supporter, provider of stuff, sex appeal,…)? Would the brand ever cheat those outside the tribe? Would it cheat those inside it?
Again, none of this information ever need be communicated outside the company or even outside the creative sessions when it is devised. Just as with our real selves, we have better and less wonderful aspects. Few of us choose to publicly reveal our innermost fears, weaknesses and bad habits but it may be a good idea to see them honestly within ourselves. What we do choose to communicate can be thought of as marketing – a true but intentionally incomplete image we project out.
For instance, Tesla Motors exists to “Make a vastly superior car, not just a car that sucks less.” Elon Musk did not found Tesla. He was their first big investor. Martin Eberhard was the spiritual founder and actual co-founder of the company. Both he and Musk (and other key players) shared values about environmentalism, the future of humanity, and business. Those values are not identical, but they are compatible, and they are not a core part of the marketing. They are what drove the team in the early days when the smart money said “This is impossible” about Tesla Motors. Moreover, it is what gives direction to innovation and core values the company holds today.
This is what a company does or makes to finance itself. If identity is the “Why we exist”, Product is the “What we do to get there”.
Back to the Tesla example, their cars outperform all competition on many levels. They are not perfect, but it is apparent even to Tesla detractors that the company expends considerable efforts to design the car, to design the manufacturing process and to design the sales and service – and to deliver on those designs. The company produces electric cars, their batteries, and the charging stations to “gas them up”. In the sense that I am talking about, Tesla Motors’ product is not just the car but the whole way of making, selling and fuelling them. They have redefined the auto industry.
As they say, mistakes have been made. Delivery dates have been missed. Charging stations have not popped up as hoped. Car quality has not always been as high as everyone (but their competitors) would like. However, due to their Identity and constant striving to improve they have a devoted following and the markets tend to forgive their mistakes. This has as much to do, probably more to do with their identity (a bold, David against several Mega-Goliaths, environmentally sound innovator and disruptor) than with the product.
We understand “Who” our brand is. We have looked at Why it exists. We developed the What. Now we can turn finally to saying and projecting what we think will help us get there. I never advocate lying. It is against my values for one thing, but more importantly, for everyone else, it is bad business. Sure, companies can get away with long-term lies, but it is expensive and vulnerable to attack by competitors. A weak position from which to build and defend our brand’s future.
Marketing is among other things, however, the art of selective and strategic truth-telling and myth creation.
We are all probably aware of Steve Jobs The Great Innovator, Jobs the Great Company Leader, Jobs the Great Visionary, Jobs the … I am sure all those and other myths are based on truth. I know they are to some degree. I also know they are not the whole truth. He may have hated puppies or farted a lot for all I know (for the record – I made those up. I have no reason to suggest they are right.) The point is, I am pretty sure he had human frailties like all of us. Those weaknesses are not part of the myth that evolved (with ample help from professional marketing teams). That is what needs to be done when creating a brand and an experience.
The Steve Jobs myth makes many Apple users, especially employees and customers feel they are part of the Apple story.
Marketing sets the expectations. It makes a promise on behalf of the brand that a given experience will be had. To do that effectively we need to understand the people being marketed to. In nearly every case that means we need to target, to subdivide the mass of humanity into groups and decide which subset we are going to address.
We all feel individual and unique. In some ways, I suppose we are. It is also true that we have a strong tendency to behave and decide in ways that are very similar to how others do – usually lots of others. For instance, Apple sells iPhones to people who feel that having the latest iPhones is worth a price premium hundreds of percent over the cheapest models. Price is not the deciding factor. Many people will sleep on sidewalks for days to be among the first to have one with each release. Are iPhones objectively so much better to merit such behaviour? Apple created most of what we think of as a mobile phone today, but they are far from the only or even the most prominent manufacturer of them now. They gave that position up years ago. It has not held them back. Apple does not care about most phone buyers. They have identified a relatively small subset of all phone buyers who want to pay that high premium every year (and new model release) or two. They know how to communicate with them, what products to deliver to them and what experience will support and reinforce that decision. In the constellation of all companies around today, Dell is so similar to Apple as to be nearly indistinguishable but comparing the two usually surprises people. It is almost laughable. Sleep on the sidewalk for the latest Dell? That is just silly. The main difference is experience.
The pillars that support experience are found in everything a company does. When we want to design that experience, we need to examine those activities and be willing to reshape them to support the experience we want. Experience Design is where company or brand identity, product design & delivery, and marketing come together. Together they create the foundation of the experience the brand will provide. They are the tools with which you will create and manipulate the feelings your target audiences will have while interacting with you. If you begin designing them right from the start, seeing them as an integrated unit called The Experience of My Brand you will be able to aim all the efforts of your company at the goal you choose. You will have a far higher likelihood of becoming a Love Brand or an Extreme Brand or a Lifetime Partner Brand or any brand type you decide to be.
This is easier when a project, startup company or within a large company, is just starting than it is when the identity has been established and the “character story” has been writing itself. Unfortunately, startups often feel it is a non-essential “extra” that would be cool if time and money existed.
To that all I can say is to repeat what I have already said; a brand provides experience whether you design it or not. People, such as customers or employees do not usually care if you are a startup. They care about what you give them – what experience they have while dealing with you. If the experience is good, they will pay you more and forgive you more. If the experience is not good, they will forget you or even resist and oppose you. Creating the foundations for a good experience is much easier (and cheaper) and often only possible in the beginning. The very loyalty good experience can create is most necessary in the beginning when mistakes are more likely and have a greater potential for being if they are not forgiven, fatal.
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