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Brandwave-logo-6.png |Experience and Empathic Design | july '15

All businesses, no matter what they make or sell, should recognize the power and financial value of good design.

Obviously, there are many different types of design: graphic, brand, packaging, product, process, interior, interaction/user experience, Web and service design, to name but a few.

We are referring to design as a broad and deliberately applied discipline, with the aim of creating simpler, more meaningful, rewarding experiences for customers.

You see, expecting great design is no longer the preserve of a picky design-obsessed urban elite—that aesthetically sensitive clique who‘d never dare leave the house without their Philippe Starck eyewear and turtleneck sweaters and buy only the right kind of Scandinavian furniture. Instead, there’s a new, mass expectation of good design: that products and services will be better thought through, simplified, made more intuitive, elegant and more enjoyable to use.

Design has finally become democratized, and we marketers find ourselves with new standards to meet in this new “era of design.” To illustrate, Apple, the epitome of a design-led organization, now has a market capitalization of $570 billion, larger than the GDP of Switzerland. Its revenue is double Microsoft’s, a similar type of technology organization but one not truly led by design (just compare Microsoft Windows with Apple’s Lion operating system).

Every day Twitter feeds populate with astounding growth facts about the likes of Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Pinterest and the more recent travel site, AirBnB. It is no coincidence that these successful brands seem to really value design and utilize it to secure a competitive advantage.

Even the UK government has issued its “design principles,” naturally on a clean, easy-to-navigate website.

But why have people become so design sensitive? Why does that credit card mailer look so bad and dated now? Why can’t you access our account details? Why does airport signage seem so unhelpful? Why doesn’t that technology plug and play?

Perhaps Apple’s global dominance has elevated our design expectations, or Ikea’s vision to bring great design at affordable prices to everyone on the planet has finally taken effect, or perhaps the Internet has taught us what well-designed user experiences and good design really are. Likely, it is a combination of all.


Think how swiftly and strongly a design experience shapes our opinion of that brand, company or store, for good or bad. For instance, we know quickly when a website is bad. And we associate that feeling of frustration, or worse, disappointment with that brand.

Design-oriented organizations invest in thinking this stuff through. They put design at the heart of their company to guide innovation and to continually improve products, service and marketing. They recognize that a great design leads to differentiation, customer loyalty and higher profits.

First Direct, a UK bank, has designed all its service touchpoints so carefully that it has become the most referred financial brand in the UK, with over 82 percent of customers happy to recommend it to friends. It’s a joy to use via any channel, and despite being a bank, I’d happily recommend it.

When you buy Apple Care, instead of receiving the standard bland letter or email, you receive a nicely designed box containing the paperwork, guidance and all the information you need. You have questions? No problem. There are clear user diagrams and a simple section on the website to help you.

The impact on brand is that customers see these brands as both progressive and customer-centric. Thoughtful and innovative design makes us feel good. It is no surprise that we are happy to advocate them, talk about them in social media and can be fiercely brand loyal.

As Michael Eisner, former CEO of Disney, once said, “A brand is a living entity—and it is enriched or undermined cumulatively over time, the product of a thousand small gestures.” That thinking still holds true, but it all happens a lot faster now. Thanks to the Internet and a hyperconnected, social-media-fueled society, brands can be instantly undermined and that experience shared with millions.

So this is a call to action for executives to recognize this new era and make the effort to transform even a mundane product or service into something more rewarding and more memorable. Try to assess each element of your service or product and better it—to see design not just as a marketing thing but as a genuine source of competitive advantage, customer and employee satisfaction and, lastly, a route to higher profits.


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Almost every company competes to some degree on the basis of continual innovation. And to be commercially successful, new product and service ideas must, of course, meet a real—or perceived—customer need. Hence the current managerial mantras: “Get close to the customer” and “Listen to the voice of the customer.” The problem is, customers’ ability to guide the development of new products and services is limited by their experience and their ability to imagine and describe possible innovations. How can companies identify needs that customers themselves may not recognize? How can designers develop ways to meet those needs, if even in the course of extensive market research, customers never mention their desires because they assume those desires can’t be fulfilled?

A set of techniques we call empathic design can help resolve those dilemmas.

At its foundation is observation—watching consumers use products or services. But unlike in focus groups, usability laboratories, and other contexts of traditional market research, such observation is conducted in the customer’s own environment—in the course of normal, everyday routines. In such a context, researchers can gain access to a host of information that is not accessible through other observation-oriented research methods.

The techniques of empathic design—gathering, analyzing, and applying information gleaned from observation in the field—are familiar to top engineering/design companies and to a few forward-thinking manufacturers, but they are not common practice. Nor are they taught in marketing courses, being more akin to anthropology than marketing science. In fact, few companies are set up to employ empathic design; the techniques require unusual collaborative skills that many organizations have not developed. Market researchers generally use text or numbers to spark ideas for new products, but empathic designers use visual information as well. Traditional researchers are generally trained to gather data in relative isolation from other disciplines; empathic design demands creative interactions among members of an interdisciplinary team.

Developing the expertise, however, is a worthy investment. Empathic design is a relatively low-cost, low-risk way to identify potentially critical customer needs. It’s an important source of new product ideas, and it has the potential to redirect a company’s technological capabilities toward entirely new businesses.

When Questions Don’t Yield Answers 

When a product or service is well understood, traditional marketing science provides amazingly sophisticated ways to gain useful information from potential customers and influence their purchasing decisions. Consider how subtle are preferences of smell and sound, yet car manufacturers can design automobile interiors to evoke the specific scent of expensive leather that U.S. buyers expect in a luxury vehicle. Nissan Design International tested more than 90 samples of leather before selecting 3 that U.S. noses preferred for the Infinity J-30. Similarly, manufacturers are adept at fine-tuning engines so that they make the preferred sounds associated with surging power and swift acceleration. Harley-Davidson, in fact, has sued competitors that have imitated the voices of its motors, which have been carefully adjusted to please its customers’ ears. Customers can guide an auto or motorcycle manufacturer in making even minute adjustments in its offering because they are familiar with the products and have developed over time a finely honed set of desires and perceived needs. In fact, the driving experience is so deeply ingrained that they can re-create most of the needs they encounter while on the road even when they are not actually in the driver’s seat.

The practices of traditional marketing science are also effective in situations where consumers are already familiar with a proposed solution to a problem because of their experiences with it in a different context. Peel-away postage stamps were an innovation that customers could comprehend because they had already encountered the light adhesives used in Post-it Notes and peel-away labels.

But sometimes, customers are so accustomed to current conditions that they don’t think to ask for a new solution—even if they have real needs that could be addressed. Habit tends to inure us to inconvenience; as consumers, we create “work-arounds” that become so familiar we may forget that we are being forced to behave in a less-than-optimal fashion—and thus we may be incapable of telling market researchers what we really want. 

Sometimes, customers are so accustomed to current conditions that they don’t think to ask for a new solution.

For example, when asked about an editing function in a software package, one customer had no complaints—until she sat down to use the program in front of the observer. Then she realized that her work was disrupted when the program did not automatically wrap text around graphics while she edited. Accustomed to working around the problem, she had not mentioned it in earlier interviews. 

Market research is generally unhelpful when a company has developed a new technological capability that is not tied to a familiar consumer paradigm. If no current product exists in the market that embodies at least the most primitive form of a new product, consumers have no foundation on which to formulate their opinions. When radio technology was first introduced in the early twentieth century, it was used solely for transmitting Morse code and voice communication from point to point. Only after David Sarnoff suggested in 1915 that such technology could be better employed in broadcasting news, music, and baseball games was the “radio music box” born. Sarnoff had put his knowledge of the technology together with what he found when he observed families gathered in their homes to envision a totally different use for the technology. No one had asked for broadcasting because they didn’t know it was feasible.

So there are many reasons why standard techniques of inquiry rarely lead to truly novel product concepts. It is extremely difficult to design an instrument for market research that is amenable to quantitative analysis and also open-ended enough to capture a customer’s environment completely. Market researchers have to contend with respondents’ tendency to try to please the inquirer by providing expected answers, as well as their inclination to avoid embarrassment by not revealing practices they suspect might be deemed inappropriate. The people who design surveys, run focus groups, and interview customers further cloud the results by inadvertently—and inevitably—introducing their own biases into the questioning. When a customer’s needs are solicited in writing or through constrained dialogue, pummeled with statistical logic, and delivered to product developers in compressed form, critical information may be missing. But why would observation be a better approach?

What We Learn from Observation 

Watching consumers has always yielded obvious, but still tremendously valuable, basic information. Consider usability: Is the package difficult to open? Does the user have to resort to the manual, or are operating principles clearly telegraphed by the design? Are handles, knobs, and distances from the floor designed ergonomically? Does the user hesitate or seem confused at any point? What unspoken and possibly false assumptions are guiding the user’s interaction with the product?

You can easily get that sort of feedback by watching people work with your products in usability labs and by testing for various ergonomic requirements. It is the additional information gained from seeing your customers actually use your product or service in their own physical environment that makes empathic design an imperative. Empathic-design techniques can yield at least five types of information that cannot be gathered through traditional marketing or product research.

Triggers of Use. 

What circumstances prompt people to use your product or service? Do your customers turn to your offering when, and in the way, you expected? If they don’t, there may be an opportunity for your company.

Consider what Hewlett-Packard learned in the early 1990s by observing users of the HP 95/100 LX series of personal digital assistants (PDAs). The company allied itself with Lotus Development Corporation to produce the PDA mainly because its product developers knew that their “road warrior” consumers valued the computing power of Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet software. But when HP’s researchers watched customers actually using the product, they found that the personal-organizer software the company had also licensed from Lotus was at least as important a trigger for using the PDA as the spreadsheet was.

When the makers of Cheerios went out in the field, they found that breakfast wasn’t necessarily the primary purpose for which certain households were using the cereal. Parents of small children, they found, were more interested in the fact that the pieces could be bagged, carried, and doled out one by one as a tidy snack anytime, anywhere to occupy restless tots.

And when the brand manager for a spray-on cooking oil saw his neighbor using the product on the bottom of his lawn mower, he discovered an entirely unexpected trigger. Pressed to explain, the neighbor pointed out that the oil prevented cut grass from adhering to the bottom of the mower and did no harm to the lawn. Such unanticipated usage patterns can identify opportunities not only for innovation and product redesign but also for entering entirely new markets. 

Interactions with the User’s Environment. 

How does your product or service fit into your users’ own idiosyncratic systems—whether they be a household routine, an office operation, or a manufacturing process? Consider what Intuit, maker of the personal-finance software package Quicken, learns through its “Follow Me Home” program, in which product developers gain permission from first-time buyers to observe their initial experience with the software in their own homes. Intuit, of course, learns a good deal about its product’s packaging, documentation, and installation from this exercise, as well as about the user friendliness of its software. But it can gather that kind of information in a usability laboratory. What Intuit can’t reliably learn in any way other than by watching someone boot up Quicken on a home computer is what other software applications are running on that customer’s system and how that software can interfere with or complement Quicken’s own operation. Moreover, product developers can see what other data files the customer refers to and might wish to access directly, what state of organization or disarray such files are in, and whether they are on paper or in electronic form. It was from such in-home observations that Intuit designers discovered that many small-business owners were using Quicken to keep their books.

Some small changes that can result from watching people use your product in their own environment can also be competitively important. When engineers from a manufacturer of laboratory equipment visited a customer, they noticed that the equipment emitted a high level of air pollution when it was being used for certain applications. That observation motivated the company to add a venting hood to its product line. Current users were so accustomed to the unpleasant smell that they had never thought to mention it and didn’t regard a venting hood as an important enhancement—until it was available. Then the company’s sales force found the hood to be a compelling sales point when customers compared the product with those of competitors.

User Customization. 

Do users reinvent or redesign your product to serve their own purposes? Producers of industrial equipment observed users taping pieces of paper to their product to serve as identifying labels. The manufacturer gained an inexpensive, but appreciable, advantage over the competition when it incorporated a flat protected space for such machine-specific information into its next model. And every Japanese automaker has set up a design studio in southern California because fanatical car owners there are prone to modifying their cars, often substantially, to meet their particular desires, be they functional (more cargo space, larger engines) or ego-intensive (spoilers, special wheels, new colors). Observing these users helps designers at Nissan and Toyota envision the potential evolution of specific models—and gives them a window on the possible future of cars and trucks in general.

Sometimes, users combine several existing products to solve a problem, not only revealing new uses for traditional products but also highlighting their shortcomings. A prominent producer of household cleaners handed video cameras to family members to record how its products were really being used in people’s basements. The company then could see homemakers concocting their own recipes for particular household chores, such as washing white curtains (“one cup baking soda, one cup dishwashing detergent,” and so on). 

Observers saw people combining beepers and cell phones not to answer calls but to screen them.

Similarly, in the course of studying consumers’ mobile-communication needs, consultants at the Chicago-based Doblin Group, observed individuals creatively combining beepers and cell phones so they could be just as available as they wished—and no more. These consumers gave special beeper codes to friends and relatives to screen out undesired interruptions. That suggested to the firm the need for filtering capabilities on cell phones.

Intangible Attributes of the Product. 

What kinds of peripheral or intangible attributes does your product or service have? Customers rarely name such attributes in focus groups or surveys, but those unseen factors may constitute a kind of emotional franchise—and thus an opportunity. When watching videos of homemakers using cleansers and detergents, representatives of the household-products company could see how often the smell of the products evoked satisfaction with their use, engendered feelings of nostalgia (“My mother used this”) or elicited other emotional responses (“When it smells clean, it makes all my work worthwhile”).

Such intangible, invisible product assets can be augmented, exploited, or redirected. After visiting the homes of Kimberly-Clark customers, consultants at the Palo Alto, California-based design firm GVO recognized the emotional appeal of pull-on diapers to parents and toddlers, who saw them as a step toward “grown-up” dress. Diapers were clothing, the observers realized, and had to highly symbolic as well as functional meaning. Huggies Pull-Ups were rolled out nationally in 1991, and by the time competitors caught on, the company was selling $400 million worth of the product annually.

Failing to note such intangible attributes can sink a new product. Environmentally friendly disks that clean washer loads of clothes without detergents have yet to attract a mass market—in large part, according to the Doblin Group’s observational research, because they don’t produce the expected clean-clothes smell. 

Unarticulated User Needs. 

The application of empathic design that holds the greatest potential benefit is the observation of current or possible customers encountering problems with your products or services that they don’t know can be addressed and may not even recognize as problems. What do you see people being unable to do that would clearly be beneficial?

A product developer from Hewlett-Packard sat in an operating room observing a surgeon at work. The surgeon was guiding his scalpel by watching the patient’s body and his own hands displayed on a television screen. As nurses walked around the room, they would periodically obscure the surgeon’s view of the screen and the operation for a few seconds. No one complained. But this unacknowledged problem caused the developer to ponder the possibility of creating a lightweight helmet that could suspend the images a few inches in front of the surgeon’s eyes. Her company had the technology to create such a product. The surgeon would never have thought to ask for it, even though its potential to improve productivity, increase accuracy, and make the surgeon’s work easier was substantial.

Unarticulated needs abound in daily routines, even when a technological solution exists. For example, Nissan Design’s president, Jerry Hirshberg, was driving along a freeway one day when he saw a couple at the side of the road wrestling the back seat of a competitor’s minivan out of the way so they could pick up a new couch. “We bought this so we would have room,” they told him, “but we can’t use it for what we want without taking out the seats.” They would never have thought of asking for any solution to their problem, but one immediately occurred to Hirshberg—six-foot runners that would enable van owners to fold up the back-seats and slide them out of the way, thus easily creating cargo room.

Weyerhaeuser won an important advantage in the market for particle board after observing an unarticulated need during a visit to a customer’s plant. The customer, a major furniture maker, created table legs by laminating together narrow boards produced by some of Weyerhaeuser’s competitors. Unable either to match the competitors’ prices or to convince the customer to pay higher prices for superior quality, Weyerhaeuser instead came up with a new way to make table legs—a new, much thicker particle board that did not have to be laminated. The consequent savings to customers in tooling and labor costs put Weyerhaeuser back in the competitive running.

Some stunning product ideas come from an engineer or designer who actually uses the products he or she develops because this individual combines knowledge of unexpressed needs with knowledge of how to fill those needs. U.S. women were annoyed for years by the inappropriateness of using a man’s safety razor, designed for faces, on their underarms and legs. When a female designer reshaped the razor for a woman’s hand and needs—the Gillette Lady Sensor—it was enormously successful.

The oft-repeated advice to “delight the customer” assumes real meaning when product or service providers push beyond what their customers anticipate to deliver the unexpected—and technology is a primary agent of such delight. But all companies have capabilities they are failing to tap in their quest to create innovative products and services because those who know what can be done are not generally in direct contact with those who need something done. Empathic-design techniques thus exploit a company’s existing technological capabilities in the widest sense of the term. When a company’s representatives explore their customers’ worlds with the eyes of a fresh observer while simultaneously carrying the knowledge of what is possible for the company to do, they can redirect existing organizational capabilities toward new markets. Consider it a process of mining knowledge assets for new veins of innovation. Usually, much of the basic underlying technology or service methodologies already exist; they just need to be applied differently. 

Empathic-design techniques can’t replace market research; rather, they contribute to the flow of ideas that need further testing.

One important note: empathic-design techniques cannot replace market research; rather, they contribute to the flow of ideas that need further scientific testing before a company commits itself to any full-fledged development project.

Empathic Design: the Process 

Companies can engage in empathic design, or similar techniques such as contextual inquiry, in a variety of ways. However, most employ the following five-step process: 

Step One: Observation 

It’s important to clarify who should be observed, who should do the observing, and what the observer should be watching.

Step Two: Capturing Data 

Because empathic-design techniques stress observation over inquiry, relatively few data are gathered through responses to questions. Most data are gathered from visual, auditory, and sensory cues. Thus empathic-design teams very frequently use photography and videography as tools.

Step Three: Reflection and Analysis 

After gathering data in many forms, the team members return to reflect on what they have observed and to review their visual data with other colleagues. Those individuals—unhampered by possibly extraneous information, such as the reputations of the individuals or companies visited or the weather at the observation site—will focus on the data before them, and they, too, will see different things. 

Step Four: Brainstorming for Solutions 

Brainstorming is a valuable part of any innovation process; within the empathic-design process, it is used specifically to transform the observations into graphic, visual representations of possible solutions. 

Step Five: Developing Prototypes of Possible Solutions 

Clearly, prototypes are not unique to empathic design. But the more radical an innovation, of course, the harder it is to understand how it should look, function, and be used. Just as researchers gather useful visual data, so too can they stimulate communication by creating some physical representation of a new concept for a product or service. 

Empathic Design as a Culture Shift 

A common criticism of the kinds of innovative ideas arising through empathic design is, “But users haven’t asked for that.” Precisely. By the time they do, your competitors will have the same new-product ideas you have—and you will be in the “me-too” game of copying and improving their ideas. Empathic-design techniques involve a twist on the idea that new-product development should be guided by users. In this approach, they still do—they just don’t know it.

Empathic design pushes innovation beyond producing the same thing only better. So for example, computer company managers who have been exposed to a deep cultural understanding of mobility no longer think only of making lighter, faster, and more durable laptops. Instead, they are challenged to consider other communication needs a portable computer might meet. Developing a deep, empathic understanding of users’ unarticulated needs can challenge industry assumptions and lead to a shift in corporate strategy.

Source Harvard Business Review

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Experience Design Talk
An inspiring Morning talk on Experience Design and Empathic Design was held at Brandcell offices on July 10th. Marketing and Customer Experience Professionals from Financial, Real Estate, Health care, Education and HORECA sectors attended the session that included presentations and workshops.
More pictures of the event are available on our facebook page.

Some companies are just better at making sure customers feel good. 

And there is a whole industry based around maximizing customer experience at "all points of contact" with a company, according to customer experience consulting company Beyond Philosophy. Interestingly, after the company interviewed 53 customer experience executives as part of its 2011 Global Customer Experience Management Survey it found that investing more resources in a better customer experience doesn't necessarily result in happier customers. 




Even though they are among the companies spending the most on customer experience, for example, companies like Hewlitt-Packard and HSBC performed among the worst of all surveyed companies. Instead, people's feelings about a company often depend on the company's ability to gauge customer emotions, which "account for more than half the typical customer experience," according to the survey. 


Tech companies, including Apple, are especially good at understanding customer emotions, according to the survey. The iPhone maker recently came out on top in the American Customer Satisfaction Index and JD Power's smartphone customer satisfaction survey. 

Of course, there are some companies bucking the trends. The survey cited American Express, a company that successfully spends big to improve customer experience. Netflix, on the other hand, has recently come under fire, as some allege the company is emphasizing profits instead of customer experience following the announcement of its new DVD service, Qwikster.





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FEATURED CASE STUDY: Understanding Reading Behaviour
As a research project with IDEOU, Brandcell team decided to look at the phenomenon of reading for children. How can we encourage children to read more? In order to subsequently find a way to do that, we ​started by gathering insight and inspiration to understand and better frame the challenge, in a step by step process across 6 weeks.
Brandcell team, started by a first wave of observation, where we visited the homes of young children (aged 6 to12) to observe them in their natural environement as they go about their usual activities and see how they behave normally. Then, we undertook some in-depth interviews with individuals showing extreme behaviours, either novices, avid readers or outside of that age group, and tried to asses the situation from their point of view. After an exercise in empathy where we put ourselves in a comparable situation to feel what these children feel while reading in the over-stimulated and distracting environement they live in, a session of brainstorming was necessary where we put down all our thoughts as insights, and rephrased them so they become memorable, inspiring and non-obvious.

The ultimate point of such a research methodology; an empathic approach is to feel with our subjects and find inspiring ways to relate to them and thus motivate the team and the designers to want to create a solution for this challenge.
Experience Design
by Patrick Newbery
Businesses thrive when they can engage customers. And, while many companies understand that design is a powerful tool for engagement, they do not have the vocabulary, tools, and processes that are required to enable design to make a difference. Experience Design bridges the gap between business and design, explaining how the quality of customer experience is the key to unlocking greater engagement and higher customer lifetime value.

1:  Identify the customer journey

2:  Develop a unified view of customer truth

3:  Realize that personalization is expected

4:  Listen to the customer and focus your attempts around his vision



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