Don’t Overthink It: Design is a Tool For Making Businesses Better

The link between outstanding design and customer experience.

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By Stephen Clements, Chief Creative Officer at YML

Talking about good customer experience is easy. It’s just doing it that is hard.

You’d think it’d be easy for me to talk about it because I have spent the last 15 years talking about it to people who do it every day — clients and designers.

And I have often wondered why is it that all these hours get spent — often on conference calls or in long meetings — by people trying to do the same thing, but in constant disagreement about how it should be done.

A colleague of mine, his wife works as a United flight attendant. That’s not her below 🙂

His wife says that on every trip, without fail, at least one customer complains. And they are so bitter, so vitriolic, and they get so angry that they say things like:

“United is the worst.”
“You have just lost yourselves a customer.”
“I am never going to fly United again.”

But she smiles professionally, all the while thinking: Of course you will. You will go on Kayak and you will pick the cheapest option-you will consider your milage plan-and I will see you next time.

In short, improving the customer experience sounds cool, but it will no doubt raise the cost of a United flight. And this might actually turn off more customers than it’s worth.

I was recently having dinner with my wife, and she asked me, “What are some of the questions you have been asked a lot by clients recently?” (A fun date night, right?)

Well, I thought, something I have been asked a lot is, Yeah, yeah, yeah. This customer experience thing sounds cool. But how will it move the needle?” I have been asked this question in many different ways. By many different clients. At many different organizations.

And, look, I get it. No one wants to invest in all this trendy customer experience goodness, but not see any actual results. Or worse still, see negative results, and they get fired.

For example, I was at a meeting with the head of e-commerce from a major airline, and he said to me that their most vocal customers — the ones who complain the most bitterly — are in fact the ones that are most profitable.

Funny right?

Probably because they have to pay extra for all the things they didn’t plan for-extra bags, extra legroom seats, extra food, etc. Which got me thinking.

First-of-all, is all revenue good revenue? And is it worth putting short-term profits ahead of long-term customer lifetime value?

It has taken me many years as a designer to reach this state of business-minded enlightenment.

And finally I have come to the conclusion: Clients don’t actually hire us to make their customers happy. They hire us to make their businesses better.

*And sometimes (sometimes) it’s the same thing.

Now, I realize this might strike you as a little odd. I mean, is this a creative person giving us a business lecture? Just please stick with me.

You see, in the beginning — when I was a young and idealistic designer — I wanted to make things that were beautiful. I wanted them to be just drop dead gorgeous. And I didn’t care about much else.

I call this my aesthetic design phase.

All I wanted to do was create porn. Not real porn. Visual, aesthetic, product porn — and I was lucky to get to do this for brands like Nike and Xbox.

Then, as my career matured, I began to develop more empathy for people. I wanted to create experiences that helped people, were loved, and talked about. Experiences that tackled really high-value life moments, like shopping for a car — like the work I did with Audi, or buying a house — like work I led with Trulia.

I call this my experience design phase.

And then, when I matured again, I developed a deeper understanding for the clients I served. I began to appreciate and better understand their decision-making process, and how they are optimizing to make more money.

I wanted to create experiences that solved real business problems — which we proudly did here at YML by doubling The Home Depot’s mobile revenue in one year.

I call this my business design phase.

I think all great designers must go through this evolution. It is the holy trinity of design.

First it was aesthetic problems.
Then, experience problems.
And lastly, now it’s business problems.

Designers that don’t graduate along this path… well usually, they fall short of their promise, and their careers are stunted. They aren’t opening their minds to this business imperative.

Some years ago, I was given some advice to buy my clients’ stocks on Robinhood— a beautiful, designer friendly app, if you don’t know it. I bought just a hundred bucks worth, here or there. I bought Nike. I bought Activision. I bought NVIDIA (that one went gangbusters). I’m definitely not a power-investor, by any measure, but it gave me valuable insight into my clients’ world — the business of business.

At YML we did work for First Data on their Clover point-of-sales system, and a year ago I bought some of their stock. It’s been quite a ride, but I have nearly doubled my money.

Now, I am no expert in macro-economics, but that trough on the right of the graph pretty much happened all across the stock market — because of the China tariffs, the fed raising interest rates, reports of economic slowdown, and maybe the Mueller investigation, too.

Right at the bottom of that trough, we had a meeting with the head of the Clover team. It didn’t go too well. She was obviously distracted and when she was engaged, she was asking very tough, business-minded questions. Maybe it was bad timing, but it was also a reminder of how significant business realities are, each and every day.

In the past, I have heard promising designers, sometimes Creative Directors even, saying things like:

Money is evil.

Business is for other people.

Clients…they just don’t think like us.” (But, of course, they all still want a raise, come review time.)

And it is true, most clients don’t think — or talk — like us. Or real people, for that matter. Imagine if they did.

I mean, I don’t know about you, but as a real person, I often find myself wishing there was more info.

Or, looking for a solution that is more scalable.

And, who isn’t absolutely thrilled when they fall into the correct user segment?

But designers aren’t any better.
They are just different.
I mean, that must be an awesome Kleenex site!

What I have learned, over the years, is that clients and designers are often talking about the same thing. But they come at it from different angles.

It’s like they are speaking different languages. It leads to a lot of disconnects, frustration, lengthy meetings, and rather cantankerous conference calls.

Let me tell you a true story. Many years ago, I was on an hours long conference call to discuss a website with a client. And we were talking round in circles when this happened.

“I want you to uplift the branding quotient,” the client said.

“Do you mean make the logo bigger?” one of our designers asked.

“Yes” the client said.

And that is a true story.

It’s a perfect example of where we are talking about the same thing in different ways. And it’s this sort of disconnect that makes it a lot harder for anyone to actually buy or sell work. Therefore, I find my day job is partly to play the role of translator.

As translator, I have spent years helping clients understand designers, and I help designers understand clients. And I have discovered it works like this.

Designers love to create simple, human, 1:1 experiences. They obsess over all the small details, crafting quality experiences that connect with people on a personal, emotional level.

And clients, well, they love scalable, enterprise-ready solutions that are 1 to many. They, quite rightly obsess over how it will make them a gajillion dollars.

But, of course, these things aren’t at odds. They are 2 sides of the same coin, and they have mutual benefit. Each one makes the other better.

It was this realization that has led me to not only be a better consultant to my clients — because I learned to speak their language — but it also made me a better designer — because I learned to understand their business.

The business of business.

It might seem obvious, but design is a tool for making businesses better.

We are not artists. Plain and simple.

At YML — where I am the Chief Creative Officer — we have this way of thinking built into our DNA. And every day, we strive to use our superpowers of strategy, design and technology to make a lasting impact.

A lasting impact on the people that use our experiences. And on our clients’ businesses, too.

1 to 1. And 1 to many.

Formerly co-founder of Junior: the Rapid Invention Company, a product design accelerator for big brands, and before that, Executive Creative Director for AKQA, San Francisco, Stephen has over 15 years industry experience working at the top of the game.

An accomplished product design and innovation leader, he created breakthrough work for brands such as Activision, Anheuser-Busch, Audi, eBay, Jordan, Levi’s, NVIDIA, Verizon, Visa, Xbox, and YouTube to name a few.

Originally published at https://ymedialabs.com on June 25, 2019.

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