Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

Designing Experiences

Blurred people walking in front of SALE window displayTwo weeks before Thanksgiving we confirmed the guest list. We would be providing a feast for 14 people. Suddenly, the dining room chairs looked a little shabby.

On a rainy Saturday morning, we drove to the fabric store to purchase materials for reupholstering our chairs. The aisles were cramped with bolts of fabric stuffed in bins and spilling off shelves. There was little rhyme or reason to the store displays. An impatient crowd gathered around the cutting table, trying to win the attention of a harried store clerk.

Despite this, we pressed on, crisscrossing the store until most of our supplies were found. We made our way to the front of the checkout line though a gauntlet of candy, toys, and other irrelevant merchandise.

“How much is this batting?” asked the woman behind the counter. “I was hoping you could tell us. It was in the scraps bin, but it wasn’t marked.” She replied, “You will have to take it to the cutting table to be measured.” Helpfully, I offered, “I’ve got a tape measure. I can measure it for you.” “No. They have to do it.” We left the cart at the cash register.

What is design?
Opportunities for design are all around us. In the preceding anecdote, there are easily a half dozen instances in which better design would improve the customer’s experience at relatively minimal cost. By design, am I referring to logistics? Store environment? Customer service? Yes, all of the above.

At its core, I believe design is about making things better. This can happen in a variety of ways, most of which have nothing to do with a company’s logo or tagline. The guiding principals of good design include empathy, curiosity, and intelligence.

Empathy is vital to developing a keen understanding of the audience, recognizing opportunities for improvement, and adapting to unpredictable environments. Curiosity includes a tendency to challenge accepted wisdom, take risks, and explore new uses for materials and technology. Intelligence helps us navigate complexity, consider multiple options faster, and turn creative ideas into concrete solutions.

Design is a two-sided coin. The best ideas must meet customers’ needs while also serving an organization’s interests. The two don’t exist in isolation. To design better, we need to clarify problems, dig deeper, and collaborate with a broader cross section of people on both sides of that coin.

Design is a process, not a product
People familiar with the term “user experience” – or UX – design commonly associate it with website or app development. It really could apply to any product or service.

The design process is a virtuous circle of observation, creation, and adaptation. Observation involves identifying users and understanding their goals and motivations. We translate our research into themes and opportunities and create prototypes for testing. Finally, we collect feedback and measure results to make improvements.

UX – or human-centered – design considers everything that affects a user’s interaction with a product or service. It is as concerned with how things work as with how they look. It is about making what you do more useful, usable and desirable for your users, and more efficient, effective, and valuable for you. A host of organizational problems would benefit from this approach.

Design is marginalized when it is seen as a series of isolated projects – an invitation to an event, a logo, a website. By the time a designer is usually consulted on projects like these, the opportunity to make a significant impact is minimal. Designers make their most valuable contributions when thinking and working systemically.

Multidisciplinary teams
The most urgent problems tend to be large and intractable. To paraphrase Einstein, the same thinking that created these problems is unlikely to solve them.

Divergent thinking is a method used to generate ideas by exploring many possible solutions. Designers happen to be very good at this. The method is enhanced by bringing different disciplines together – people with different perspectives. Together, they are able to gain insights and recognize patterns of behavior that would be difficult to obtain working independently.

This synthesis – an ability to see things not readily apparent to others – enables multidisciplinary teams to design better experiences, products, and services.

Investing in design
Design is an integrative discipline. The fastest growing companies align their business and design strategies. It is powerful when employed to solve complex problems in collaboration with leaders throughout an organization. Absent a deep belief in its value, however, design becomes a relatively inconsequential tactic.

So, rather than chasing the next viral hashtag, or obsessing over the headline kerning on a sales flyer, smart companies take the advice of Bob Hoffman, the Ad Contrarian:

Give your customers excellent products, excellent service, and excellent value. Then let them do your social media work for you. They’re a lot less expensive than social media experts and a lot more reliable.

Investing in your customers’ experience means taking advantage of a designer’s most valuable skills. British designer Patrick Cox put it best, “Companies don’t need better advertising, they need to be designed better.”

Related content:

Designing Services that Deliver
Curiosity is as Important as Intelligence

Future Forecast

Photo of old man in turban whose face is glowing in the light of a crystal ballEvery year, it seems, Christmas decorations appear in stores earlier and earlier. As back-to-school sales fade from memory, jack-o-lanterns and witches hang on twinkling artificial trees in the seasonal section of your friendly neighborhood big-box retailer.

In that tradition, I’m skipping right past Thanksgiving and looking to the new year – and the year after that.

People are fascinated with the future. Most want an estimate of a specific future outome at a specific time. When will I meet my true love? Who will win the big game? Will this be a good investment? Lucrative industries sell predictions to eager buyers.

Forecasts, on the other hand, tend to focus on process, patterns, and potential outcomes. They are more useful for developing strategies in a dynamic environment – one that offers a range of outcomes and responses. For example, it may not matter much if it’s 83 or 79 degrees over next weekend’s beach vacation, but it will be good to know if you’re going to need an umbrella and some backup plans.

I’ve observed the early stages of a few trends in nonprofit marketing and design. Each involves multiple behaviors and tactics that together begin to coalesce into underlying themes. None are particularly widespread now – or effectively implemented. I believe all of them will be used increasingly by successful organizations going forward.

Over the next four months, I will delve more deeply into each of the following topics:

Building Capacity
There is never-ending pressure to be more productive at work. And yet complex problems require people to think and solve problems more creatively than ever. There is an inherent conflict between these truths. Limited by time, money, and imagination, organizations will need to learn how to build capacity – both to scale up successful products and services and to do more with less.

Perpetual Beta Mode
We are all works in progress. Somewhere along the way, however, businesses evolved to a much more rigid way of working, with a goal of getting to the “finished” product as soon as possible. While there are benefits to having deadlines and targets, eliminating experiments and a tinkering mindset sacrifices big ideas on the altar of risk aversion. Future leaders will recognize that perfection is overrated.

Data Visualization
We may be in the age of Big Data, but it is rarely used in ways that bring clarity to complex issues. People aren’t rational. They make decisions and process information based on a jumble of experiences, instinct, and emotion – backfilling decisions with data because it sounds better. Those who can give numbers context, and connect them to a compelling story, will prove to be very valuable.

Designing Experiences
Organizations that are determined to help and delight their audiences will grow faster than those that do not. Designers will spend less time making artifacts – logos, publications, websites – and more time applying creative thinking to the ways that customers interact with an organization and the world around them. British designer Patrick Cox put it best, “Companies don’t need advertising, they need to be designed better.”

As we turn the page to 2015 and beyond, I hope these forecasts help generate ideas and strategies for a better-designed future … which I’ll be working on just as soon as the leftover turkey is gone.

What trends do you see emerging?