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Posts Tagged ‘design’

Read Part 1: Assholes are bad for business.

I know what you are going to say: “Olivier, what’s up with the poopy-words all of a sudden? The other week, it was “assholes”. This week, it’s this. Didn’t your mom raise you to be a polite young man?” Answer: She tried. But sometimes, the polite version of a word just doesn’t do the job. Case in point: I could say “care.” Care about your customers. Care about designing the best products. Care about giving it your all every day. Care about taking your business into the stratosphere.

Care.

Except no. This isn’t about caring. This is about giving a shit, and yes, there is a difference.

When the word “care” no longer actually means caring.

“Caring” about something can mean a lot of different things. I can care about matching my shoes to my belt. I can care about the way my rainbow sprinkles touch the peanut butter ice cream but not the ball of Nutella ice cream underneath. I can care about maybe watching Curb Your Enthusiasm tonight, or waiting until tomorrow or next week. I can care about trying to sound pleasant on the phone, or maybe not so much. I can care about something if the conditions are right, and care less about it if circumstances change. Caring lives along a broad scale, as demonstrated by this awesome home-made graph:

But when you give a shit, that isn’t any kind of passive caring. Giving a shit means caring to the max. It means committing heart and soul to caring about something. Giving a shit is to caring what running a full-on sprint is to jogging. It is the storm to the light drizzle, the bazooka to the cork gun and the bear hug to the friendly nod. Giving a shit means you won’t sleep tonight if you screwed it up. It means you are going to take it all the way to the line. It means you are going to excel rather than settle for average… or mediocre. Giving a shit means you are driven by something more than a paycheck. It means you are driven by passion. And that, boys and girls, is some mighty strong secret sauce. Nothing can crush that. Nothing can get in its way.

When I walk into a store and talk to one of the salespeople there, I don’t want them to “care.” I want them to give a shit. The chef in the kitchen, I don’t just want him to “care”. The customer service guy on the phone, “care” is just the price of entry. You want to make your company kick ass? You have to take it a step further. That politician I just voted for? Guess what: He needs to do more than just “care.” The surgeon operating on my kids, yeah, her too, what I want her to do is actually give a shit.

When you give a shit, excuses don’t work anymore. Falling short (failing) becomes less of an option, if at all. Giving a shit means you’re invested, and that is when I know you are bringing your A-game. You aren’t just there for a paycheck, the dental plan or the free tickets to Wally World every summer. You are there because you want to be. Because you give a shit.

Look, everyone acts like they care when you interview them. “Oh yes, Mr. Jones, I really want to work here!” Right. In six months, that new hire will be spending half his day complaining to their office-mates about you, about pesky customers and their temperamental complaints, about having to work late, and about how poorly he gets paid. When you walk by his desk, you won’t even catch a glimpse of the Facebook tab or the game of computer solitaire you just interrupted. That’s what “care” will get you. And you know what? You’ll be to blame. Here’s why: Because your company culture made them that way.

When I call a company’s phone number and get an automated message telling me “… we care about your call,” what that company has just told me it doesn’t give a shit. And since companies don’t think – people do, namely executives making decisions (like having a computer answer my call instead of a human being), I know that this wasn’t an oversight. Someone made a deliberate decision to communicate to me and everyone else who calls them that the people in charge of building the company’s internal culture don’t give a shit. Way to get things off on the right foot.

The importance of creating “I give a shit” cultures.

None of this is rocket science. If you hire people who aren’t passionate about what you do, about what your company is about, or even people who don’t particularly care about their profession save getting a big fat check at the end of the week, you are going to create a culture of mediocrity. If instead you hire people who love your company, who were fans long before the job ever opened up, you will get a completely different result. Likewise, if you hire someone who is passionate about what they do, they will probably not disappoint.

A few years ago, one of my then employees admitted to me (when her bonus didn’t seem as guaranteed as she would have liked it to be) that she was considering transferring to HR. Puzzled by that admission, I asked her to elaborate. She told me “they just make straight salary over there.” I studied her for a moment, and asked her “Don’t you want to do this? If HR is something you’re interested in, why are you here?” She sighed and told me “I don’t really care what I do. I just want a steady paycheck.”

This is someone whom, if asked, would have told the CEO that she cared about her job, that she was passionate about it, that she loved it. That’s the average value of “care.”

Nb: I made sure my team hit its targets that month and the one after that, and she did, in fact, hit her bonus.

People like this are everywhere. It isn’t that they are necessarily lazy. Some are, but some are just apathetic. Doing what they do is a job. A paycheck. Nothing more. They spend their day watching the clock. They are out the door as soon as their work day is over and not a minute more. This is not the kind of employee you want. I don’t care if you are managing a hospital, a restaurant or a global brand, people like this are poison. They are engines of mediocrity, lackluster service, and lousy customer experiences. And god forbid they should become managers, or worse yet, SVPs or C-suite executives.

Imagine a CEO who doesn’t give a shit, for example. Or one who at least gives the impression, through their actions or words, that they perhaps don’t give a shit? What would that look like? What would be the impact of that type of “leadership” on the entire organization? On the brand’s reputation? On decisions being made up and down the corporate ladder inside its four walls? What kinds of ripples would this create?

Ken Lay of Enron

BP's Tony "I'd like my life back" Hayward

Now imagine a CEO who does give a shit. What would that look like? What kind of company culture would that generate? What kind of profitability and customer experience excellence would that drive?

Tony Hsieh of Zappos

Sir Richard Branson, of all things Virgin

Company cultures don’t grow from a random churn of interactions. They are engineered and designed from the inside out, deliberately, by people who give a shit. Or by people who don’t. The difference in outcomes between the two is typically fairly spectacular. We have all seen amazing companies falter under the direction of this CEO or that, solely based on their degree of giving a shit.

Why am I emphasizing that company cultures are engineered? Three reasons:

1. People who give a shit tend to hire people who also give a shit, and so on. Companies like this tend to hire carefully because they understand the importance of only hiring what you might call kindred spirits. Fans. Like-minds. They aren’t hiring as much as letting the right people into their little tribe of believers. When your entire company gives a shit, customers notice and become loyal. Why? Because they like that you give a shit, and they respect that. Besides, since you give a shit, you treat them well, which is more than anyone can say about companies that don’t give a shit about either their employees or their customers.

2. When customers like you (see 1. above), they tend to do a number of things: a) They love doing business with you, b) they do business with you as long as you keep giving a shit (which could be their own lives), and c) they recommend you to everyone they know, which in turn helps drive your business.

3. One CEO can make or break a company. Just one. Remember what happened to Apple when Steve Jobs left, back in the day? Should I mention some of Home Depot’s ups and downs? Show me a company whose CEO gives a shit, and I will show you a company about to bloom like a flower in sunlight. Show me a company whose CEO doesn’t, and I will show you a company about to race headlong into a very rough patch.

More than anything, customers instinctively know that they will eventually get screwed by someone who doesn’t really give a shit. They also instinctively know they will never get screwed by someone who does. This is important.

Even if giving a shit didn’t generate better design departments, better products, better service, better customer relations and generally healthier businesses, this point alone should catch the attention of CEOs, boards or directors, and investors alike: Consumer perceptions, trust, loyalty, these things matter in the mid-to-long term. Heck, they matter today. This very minute. Every single consumer making a purchasing decision right now is weighing one company against another. One will win. The others will lose. How are you feeling about your chances?

Leadership isn’t all about skills and experience. It’s also about attitude. And giving a shit, boys and girls, is a pretty important component of the sort of attitude we are talking about today.

The reciprocal effect of giving a shit.

Hiring people who give a shit, but not those who don't.

The above diagram illustrates the process of engineering loyalty and positive WOM (word of mouth) by sticking to a no asshole policy (see Part 1) and making sure you hire people who actually give a shit.

Note the jokers in red ink who didn’t really give a shit and are therefore not hired. The fact that they are not invited to spread their apathy and inevitable passive aggressive disdain to their coworkers and customers like a CSTD (Customer Service Transmitted Disease) ensures that your company maintains its edge.

Now let’s look at another kind of organization – one which doesn’t discriminate quite so much:

Hiring people who give a shit, and those who don't.

Note how in this alternate version, a company having allowed such individuals to breach its inner sanctum begin to spread mediocrity across their entire business, and how that trickles down into customer experiences and perceptions.

In short, giving a shit is contagious. From the CEO on down to everyone in the company and outwardly to customers. Positive attitudes and perceptions spread virally through recommendations, discussions and general perception. In the same way, not giving a shit is contagious as well, and it too spreads like a virus across departments, front-line employees, customers, and to their social and professional networks.

This is how reputations are both made and unmade, depending on what kind of culture you decide to engineer.

What are some of the obvious symptoms that a company doesn’t give a shit?

This is important, because these are common red flags. When consumers spot any of these (or several,) they know that perhaps your company doesn’t really care a whole lot about you, your loyalty, or your affection for their products or brands.

1. Customer service is outsourced. (Because nothing says “We care” like handing you off to total strangers working under contract for less than minimum wage.)

2. The recording says “your call is important to us…” which is kind of funny coming from a recording.

3. The company’s employees look at the clock more than they look at you.

4. The CEO, in the middle of a crisis, says things like “I’d like my life back.”

5. Outsourced social media accounts, especially when it comes to customer service functions.

6. When the product fails, technicians will be happy to “look at it,” and repair it for about 70% or more of the value of the product in about 6-12 weeks. This is usually followed by “you could just buy another one” type of “caring” advice.

7. False or misleading advertising.

8. The company spams your inbox, twitter feed, phone, or otherwise valuable channel.

9. The average customer has no idea who the CEO of the company is. Until they see him or her on TV, defending pretty bad decisions.

10. After several interactions with company employees or management, you begin to suspect that everyone who works there might actually be some kind of asshole.

11. Poor product design, characterized by lousy user UI/UX.

12. The manager, in an empty store or restaurant, still manages to blow off his only customers… assuming he is even there.

13. The company sells your personal information to third parties.

14. The CEO’s Twitter account, blog and/or Facebook page – all proof that he “cares,” wants to “engage” customers and feels that social media is “important” – are all managed and fed by a proxy, (or ghost writer) preferably working for an outside firm or agency. (Sorry Mr. Pandit, but you have been advised improperly on this one.)

15. More excuses than solutions, followed by buzzwords and lip service.

16. The CEO spends more time on the golf course than he does listening to customers.

And there you have it.

Three questions.

So the three questions you have to ask yourself are these:

1. What kind of company culture are my customers experiencing whenever they interact with one of my employees, colleagues, bosses, products and services? The kind that gives a shit, or the kind that clearly doesn’t?

2. What kind of company culture should I be building?

3. Once I cast aside the propaganda, tag lines, mission statements and sycophantic reports, what kind of company culture am I really building?

Be honest.  Are you setting the right example? Are you hiring the right people? Are you teaching them to give a shit? Are you rewarding them accordingly?

… Or are you banking on a mission statement to communicate to your employees that they should “care”?

Giving a shit is hard. So is kicking ass. So what?

Yeah, giving a shit is hard. It’s expensive too. It requires all sorts of investments: Financial, cultural, temporal, even emotional. (Perhaps especially the latter.) Giving a shit means that your business isn’t just about balance sheets and incremental basis points of change. It’s about creating something special for and with your customers. It’s about building the foundations of a lovebrand – like Apple, Harley Davidson, Virgin Airlines and BMW. It’s about investing in market leadership, in customer loyalty and evangelism, in your own reputation, and in the strength of your own brand. In short, it means investing in long term success, in stability in tough economic time, and in a demand vs. supply ratio that will always be in your favor. Giving a shit is an investment, yes, and not one that might immediately make sense to financial analysts, but one that pays off every time. It is the genesis of everything that ultimately makes a business successful: Professionalism. The endless pursuit of quality, of great design, of remarkable user/customer experiences.

The moment you lose that, the moment you start giving a shit a little bit less, the moment you start cutting corners, that’s when you start to screw up. When you lose that competitive edge. When you start sinking into the fat middle with everyone else. That’s when you start to lose. Before you know it, you’re stuck picking between BOGO pitches and worrying about price wars with foreign imports. I’ve worked with companies like this. You don’t want to go there, trust me. It’s ugly. It’s stressful. You wake up one morning and realize that even if you tried to give a shit anymore, you couldn’t. There wouldn’t be enough time. It wouldn’t make a difference. It might even get you fired. Everything you’ve worked for all your life is hanging on the edge, and it’s a long, hard road back too the top. Most companies never make it back. I can tell you that it’s a lot easier to never fall than to have to climb back up again, but either way, it’s a daily battle.

In fact, giving a shit is so hard that very few companies do anymore. It isn’t how the game is played any longer. “The customer is always right” is a relic of the past, isn’t it?

Or is it?

Have you listened to what people are saying about your company on Twitter and Facebook lately? Do you know what they are saying about your competitors? In a year or two, do you think companies whose leaders don’t give a shit are going to be able to compete against companies whose leaders do? If you don’t see giving a shit as a competitive advantage yet, as a differentiator, even as a normalizing agent, then at the very least see it as a matter of survival. The age of the “I don’t give a shit” CEO is done. Game over.

Time to make a change or two?

*          *          *

Since it’s June, here are this month’s three quick little announcements:

One – If you haven’t read “Social Media ROI: Managing and measuring social media efforts in your organization” yet, you will find 300 pages of insights with which to complement this article. It won’t answer all of your questions, but it will answer many of them. If anything, the book is a pretty solid reference guide for anyone responsible for a social media program or campaign. It also makes a great gift to your boss if you want him or her to finally understand how this social media stuff works for companies.

You can sample a free chapter and find out where to buy the book by checking out www.smroi.net.

Two – If you, your agency or your client plan on attending the Cannes Lionsfrom June 19-25, I am planning something a little… “unofficial” during the festival. If you are interested in being part of it, let me know.

You can send me an email, a note via LinkedIn, a Twitter DM, or a facebook message if you want to find out more. (The right hand side of the screen should provide you with my contact information.)

Three – If the book isn’t enough and you can’t make it to Cannes later this month, you can sign up for a half day of workshops in Antwerp (Belgium) on 30 June. (Right after the Lions.) The 5 one-hour sessions will begin with an executive briefing on social media strategy and integration, followed by a best practices session on building a social media-ready marketing program, followed by a PR-friendly session on digital brand management, digital reputation management and real-time crisis management, followed by a session on social media and business measurement (half R.O.I., half not R.O.I.). We will cap off the afternoon with a full hour of open Q&A. As much as like rushing through questions in 5-10 minutes at the end of a presentation, wouldn’t it be nice to devote an entire hour to an audience’s questions? Of course it would. We’re going to give it a try. Find out more program details here. Think of it as a miniRed Chair.

The cool thing about this structure is that you are free to attend the sessions that are of interest to you, and go check your emails or make a few phone if one or two of the sessions aren’t as important. The price is the same whether you attend one or all five, and we will have a 15 minute break between each one.

The afternoon of workshops is part of Social Media Day Antwerp (the Belgian arm of Mashable’s global Social Media Day event), and I can’t help but notice that the price of tickets is ridiculously low for what is being offered. Anyone can afford to come, which is a rare thing these days. (Big props to the organizers for making the event so accessible.)

The event is divided into 2 parts: The workshop in the afternoon, and the big Belgian style party in the evening. You can register for one or both (do both).

Register here: Social Media Day – Antwerp

My advice: Sign up while there are still seats available, and before #smdaybe organizers realize they forgot to add a zero at the end of the ticket prices. :D

Cheers,

Olivier.

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Back in the day, business cards were simple: Black letters, white background, one-sided. You went to the printer (or sent them off) and the guy made a point to print clean, simple, beautiful cards in some of the sharpest fonts known to man.

When marks and logos started getting popular (yes, that whole “branding” thing) they of course started landing on business cards as well. Coca Cola. Nike. Microsoft. Target. Joe The Plumber. (Oh wait… never mind.) This was kind of nice, but then again… not really. (Big difference between having, say, an IBM business card and a Brooks Brothers business card.)

And then colors started showing up.

And then photographs.

And glossy coatings.

And then pretty much all hell broke loose.

On the one hand, many insurance and real estate agents started going crazy with really awful designs, making everything glossy, plastering their “glamour shots” portraits all over the place, and essentially turning business cards into a pocket version of the coupon spam you get in the mail every few days. If loud was good, louder was even better. (Not all do it, but you know who they are. Nuff said.)

superior_bcs_tarek

On the other hand, talented designers started creating some incredible business cards – first for themselves, of course – and then for their clients. Case in point, I received a KILLER business card yesterday from Brady Bone, over at The Republik. The best way I can describe it is “Minority Report” meets Homeland Security meets New York subway ticket. It’s black on white, super clean, with bar codes, all kinds of cool little details and a magnetic strip. It even has Brady’s signature and an enigmatic half-tone shot of his face, which are both nice touches. Anyway, my point here isn’t to rave about Brady’s awesome card, but to point out that when it comes to blank canvasses, business cards are still one of the great frontiers when it comes to design.

And brand communication.

So you basically have three options when it comes to business card design: Good, bad, and boring.

Good can be this, this, this or even this. Good can be just a little good, or it can be Brady good. (Go here for a pretty sweet collection of creative designs- some better than others.)

Bad is just bad. I’ll just say this: If it looks like a car dealership ad, it’s probably bad. If it combines Comic Sans and gold/yellow, it’s probably bad as well. More often than not, bad very often looks like this:

real-estate-agents-cards

Boring is just… you know… a typical template (or as Rich Lafferty would call it, “corporate”) card: Logo, info, maybe a box of color here and there to dress it up, but zero personality. 90% of business cards I run into fall into that category. I’ll be willing to bet that most websites associated with companies with boring business cards are also based on unremarkable templates and don’t get a whole lot of traffic. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but if you’re going to spend money on a website, money on business cards and letterhead, money on networking events and business organization memberships – money on marketing in general, why not make that money count? Why settle for boring or ugly or ineffective? Seems like kind of a waste, doesn’t it? Why not spend a little bit of time giving your image some thought? Your zip code is filled with graphic designers and creative agencies that could help you with that. Not help you just create pretty cards, but help you make your business more memorable and attractive – yes, even if it is only at first glance. (, you have to start somewhere.)

Think about the stacks of business cards yo come home with after a business event. Don’t you tend to reach for the well designed ones first? The ones with a little bit more personality or information? Of course you do. And what happens to retention when someone hands you a memorable card vs. a boring one? Don’t you have a tendency to remember the encounter a little better? The person’s face, your conversation, the context, etc.? Don’t you find that there’s value in using business cards to anchor contextual memories – which help cement what people and their companies do in your mental business mapping center?

So having a remarkable card (hopefully in a good way) makes good business sense. Having an unremarkable business card puts you at a disadvantage. (Think: lost in the shuffle.) Having an awful card might actually turn off prospective clients and partners if it is bad enough.

Card design is pretty important, then.

Naturally, creative agencies and freelancers will tend to have seriously memorable cards. Some are works of art in their own right. Others are just clever. Some are examples of flawless design. And then some pretty much turn into movements, like Hugh’s designs (below). There is pretty much a design range for everyone. Creatives will often lean towards graphic design masterpieces, while other professions (say, attorneys and accountants) will opt for more sober, less creative designs. And that’s just dandy. As long as the design is good, and as long as the design works for the person or business (fit, image, tone, message, etc.)

religion23667-thumb

I could yap about business cards for hours, but… I won’t. (Hang out here just a little while longer. We’re almost done.) The reason why I am obsessing over business cards today – as opposed to social media, the latest bailout or Pepsi’s latest can redesign (which sucks, by the way) – is that I have suddenly found myself in need of business cards.

As many of you probably know, the brandbuilder blog is finally becoming a biz in its own right (brand consulting, marketing management, online reputation management, and all that good stuff). Yep, little Olivier is finally all grown up and ready to go help cool businesses conquer the world.

Now that I’ve finally secured an address – which took long enough – I can at last get some business cards printed. No more “my cards aren’t printed yet” excuses during ritual business card exchanges at business events. No siree.

But first, I have to settle on a business card design. And as you may well imagine for a somewhat creative guy like me, picking the right design can turn into a dangerous exercise: On the one hand, I want to stand out a bit. On the other, I don’t want my designs to be too unique. There needs to be some measure of brand continuity between the blog, the site, the cards, etc… but also not so much that the design looks stale. The idea here is to strike the right balance. While I work with my fair share of creatives, I am not a creative agency, and I need to remember that.

Truth be told, my business card design(s) will probably change often. When a batch runs out, I will probably replace it with a completely fresh one. New look, new flavor, etc. Just to keep things interesting. But I right now, I need to settle on batch #1. The BrandBuilder, Inc.’s very first set of business cards. And for that, boys and girls, I need your help. Instead of picking them myself, I will let you guys (and gals) decide what my first calling card’s design will be.

Cool, huh?

Here are the three sets. By the way, the graphics and fonts got a little mangled when I shrank everything to size for this post, so my apologies if things look less than crisp.

Set #1. This one is a little tricky because you have to match front and back.  Combine your favorite front with your favorite back and tell me what you think works best. Feel free to print out the image, get your scissors out, and make your own little cutouts to see how they work together.

Because one’s backside should always come first…

card-deck-1

1.

card-204

2.

basic-orange-d

3.

And now for the front…

card-olivier-102da.

card-1973-b

b.

card-olivier-21-a

c.

basic-orange-14

d.

Set #2: The idea here was to create a simple and clean set of cards. Nothing fancy, just a clean design that can look pretty good in a card holder. In this set, the front (very last image, orange) stays the same while the back (all other images) changes. Each color/flavor has its own caption to help spread the message. (Why have only one tag line when you can have dozens?) The plan is to have all six versions printed.

basic-black-b

basic-green-b

basic-yellow-b

basic-red-b

basic-violet-b

basic-orange-b3

above: back side. Below: front side

basic-orange-12

Set #3: This is the vertical set. Even more basic than set #2, it tries to be as clean as possible while asking some pertinent value-related questions. I call this the “what if…” set. The “what if…” questions currently on there are kind f lame, but the possibilities are endless. What if you knew how to leverage social media to make your customers love you? What if you didn’t have to spend so much on advertising? What if you could be the talk of the town again? What if your launch exceeded all of your expectations? You get the idea.

card-set-3

See? I told you. Nothing fancy. I just want to create a visual bridge between the blog and the business via the card/letterhead design, so the creative only has so much rope to play with.

Feel free to vote, comment, etc.

And thanks for taking the time to give me feedback. (Even if it’s negative.)

And by all means, if you have a design concept you want me to see, definitely send it to me. I’m open to any and all ideas, as always. 😉

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Okay… People always ask me “Olivier, what do you want for Christmas?”

Well, now I know what to answer them: A Loft Cube.

Though not exactly a cube, this “personalized home container” is 7.50m x 7.50m x 3.50m (plus 1.20m from the ground), and sports 45 square meters of pure style and design. Check this little marvel out:

First, the window spaces can be individually customized (transparent, translucent, wooden slats, etc.) so you can strategically keep your nosy neighbors out of your biz without sacrificing precious light or a killer view. (Not a bad start.)

Second, the use of space inside this thing is nothing short of pure genius. It’s wide open, every section flows into the next, and the furniture works to tie it all together as simply and comfortably as possible.

Third, (see below) the showerhead swings through the wall partition to water the plant. (How cool is that?!)

loft4

Fourth, (also below) the bathroom faucet swings throught its wall partition to double as a kitchen sink faucet. (Seriously. The coolness knows no end.)

Fifth… see those soothing little white rocks on the ground? They absorb moisture under the shower and the bathroom sink to help keep the floor dry. (Now why didn’t I think of that?!?!?!?!)

Sixth, this thing can be built on a rooftop or in a backyard or by a swimming pool… or just anywhere you want. This would make for a killer guest house / home office / man cave is what I’m thinking.

loft-3

I’ve seen modular dwellings before, but this one kind of rocks my world. It’s pure design genius. Simple, beautiful, efficient… I’m in lurve. It’s like, the ultimate guest house/loft/pod/lounge, all rolled into a stylish little package…

… and the perfect Christmas present for yours truly.

Ahem.

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Great observation about design on Presentation Zen (hat tip to What’s The Beef?):

Design is about many things. Above all, it’s about clarity, and intentions and about putting yourself in the position of the end users (or the customers, students, audience, etc.). When designs are not well thought out, even though it may all look good from our point of view, users get frustrated, confused, or even angry. Anyone who has used a poorly designed user interface on a mobile phone, for example, or gotten lost while following the signs on the freeway in a new city understands these feelings. And anyone who is squinting to see a figure or read a quote on a PowerPoint slide is experiencing a bad design of sorts. I always say the lessons are all around. I love examples of poor design, even for the simplest of things, because they are occasions to learn.

When you first sit in the driver’s seat of a car, push the ON button on a computer for the first time, check into a new hotel, look for information on a website, make your way to the cash register, connect a new media player to a laptop, snap a new lens onto an SLR camera, or lace up a fresh new pair of running shoes, it doesn’t take long to figure out how much time the designers actually spent using the type of product they designed.

When I get behind the wheel of a BMW, I know immediately that the team that designed it loves to drive. And I don’t mean just drive to work and to the store. I mean drive. As in… for fun. For thrills. Thirty seconds into using a Mac for the first time, the Apple design team’s passion for great user interfaces is also pretty obvious. Clip into a Look pedal, slip on a pair of Rudy Project Rydons, Squeeze yourself into a pair of Hincapie Sportswear bib tights or pull the cap off a Mont Blanc pen, and you will immediately feel the same thing.

Great design delights. Great design triggers smiles and compliments. Great design invites repeat business. Great design generates great word-of-mouth recommendations, endorsements and reviews. Great design is ALWAYS a win for everyone.

And bad design sucks.

For the third time in a week now, I found myself in a checkout line at my local Target store, and experienced the destructive power of bad design. Target painstakingly designs its stores and advertising to be inviting, upbeat and cool. I love shopping there because I know I’ll find something cool and inexpensive to buy for my house. So from ads to store design to product selection, Target is 100% conscious of the importance of great design, right? But then you get to the checkout, and it all comes crashing down. Here’s how: For some reason, a good deal of items at my local Target seem to come without bar codes. (As impossible as it may seem in this day and age.) And without a bar code, the cashier is completely helpless a checkout. If the item can’t be scanned, the purchasing process grinds to a complete halt. To get it started again, you need a price check: The cashier has to put on her blinking light and call a supervisor. The supervisor then has to stare at the product for five minutes to confirm that there indeed is no bar code anywhere on it. The supervisor then has to call someone on her little radio. That someone has to go to the back of the store to find the item, copy the bar code numbers from the shelf tag, and radio it back in – or write it down and walk it back to the front of the store. Meanwhile, the six families standing in line behind you are ready to beat you over the head with their $19.99 welcome mats and seasonal plastic tumbler sets. If you were in a hurry, forget it. What seemed like a simple, convenient little “oh hey, I’ll just buy it while I’m here” purchase turns into a “damn, I could have just gone to Wal-Mart instead” swell of regret.

A month before Christmas, your impromptu purchase of a $19.99 Michelin windshield wiper has caused a ten minute gridlock at register number nine on a busy Saturday afternoon. Because someone forgot to apply a bar code to a product, and also because the cashier and her system aren’t set up to identify the product without the precious bar code. In that one simple omission, every bit of great design that Target has spent millions of dollars to integrate into its brand evaporates. Not only for me, but for the six families standing impatiently behind me.

The lesson: Design thinking isn’t limited to products. Systems also require great design. And everything is a system. Your entire company is a system. Your customer service department is a system. Your warranty department is a system. Your checkout area – whether physical or electronic – is a system. Great systems are based on great design, and great design is based on observation: Putting yourself in your customers’ shoes. Understanding what they like or dislike. Finding ways of delighting them, or at the very least, fulfilling their specific needs.

If you’re a CEO or other C-level executive, how often do you look at your own company’s processes from a customer’s point of view? How often do you call your own 1-800 number with a problem or question?  How often do you go into a store to buy your own products “incognito” or try to return them through normal channels when they fail?

How much time does your company actually spend walking in the shoes of your customers?

Great design doesn’t start with a cool creative type sketching ideas in a posh studio. It starts with real world insight, out there where your customers and users live.

Want to be a great executive? Want to understand great design? Start by joining your customers.

Happy Thanksgiving week, everyone!  🙂

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