Great product design is greater customer experience

In 1997, shortly after Steve Jobs returned to Apple, Dell’s founder and chairman, Michael S Dell, was asked at the Gartner Symposium and ITxpo 97 how he would fix financially troubled Apple. “What would I do?” Dell said. “I’d shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders.”

On the second day after Jobs came back to Apple, Tim Bajarin, recognised as a leading analyst and futurist covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology, was invited to meet with him. One of the questions Bajarin asked Jobs was how he planned to get the computer maker back on the road to profitability. To his surprise, one of the foundational solutions offered was “industrial design.”

Ten years later when Apple’s market capitalisation surpassed not just Dell’s $64 billion ($47 billion as we write this), but IBM’s as well. In mid-2007, Apple was the most valuable computer maker in the world. Its market capitalization stood at nearly $162 billion, $6 billion more than that of industry heavyweight IBM. At that same time, Apple’s market cap was the fourth largest among technology companies, lagging behind only Cisco ($189 billion), Google ($208 billion), and Microsoft ($290 billion).

At the time, this made no sense. However, Apple soon introduced the head turning iMacs with their bold colors, which threw the stodgy industry and its boring beige PCs for a loop. Apple followed up with the introduction of the iPod, ever-sleeker iMacs, and the iPhone, hailed by PC Magazine as “the most important product of the still-young 21st century.”

Now the company is shaking up the notebook market with the thin, light, and stylish MacBook Air, and has taken on the video rental market with the Apple TV. Apple has built a design-driven culture that knows how to connect with its customers in a deeply emotional way. Apple products are portals to an amazing menu of continuing experiences that matter to a lot of us. Over time, Michael Dell built a brilliantly designed computer manufacturing and delivery heavyweight.

For a long time (by technology standards), Dell was the 800-pound gorilla in the space. Pretty soon, other makers mastered supply-chain management, which is now the price of admission. The PC itself was relegated to commodity status.

Become brilliant at using design to provide an amazing customer experience:

You know that design is on everyone’s mind it’s almost a mantra. You see a new product a car, an iPod, or the latest cutting-edge cell phone, and you might think that a fairly straightforward process was involved in the product design. In some cases, this might be true, though often it’s not.

As a matter of fact, the process that delivers a good design the physical embodiment of the product and how it looks and feels to a customer , which is so important for success is often driven more by serendipity than by an integrated understanding of the design’s impact on the broader idea of a product and business. Serendipity is a good thing, but counting on it isn’t.

Most people are prone to define design, particularly good design, more narrowly than they should. When you see an iconic product, such as an iPhone, for instance, that enjoys an initial runaway success, it’s so easy to overlook the big picture of how the product fits into the company’s future and the future of similar products in general. We want you to consider a far broader view of the significance of design.

Consider, for instance, the case of Motorola’s Razr phone. Here is a product you might consider iconic. Historically, Motorola was an innovative company. The Razr has been a runaway success, although a bit of a fluke actually, because Motorola has never really understood what it had. Motorola just came up with a nice design and a nice form factor.

The Razr was thin. Designers sacrificed some footprint (height and width) for thinness. The design tied in with the naming, “Razr,” and it worked, the imagery around the product struck a chord in people’s hearts and minds. Motorola initially marketed the Razr well, but efforts since then have largely fallen flat.

The design did not transform Motorola’s culture. The company had only a single product, and now Motorola is back in trouble because it tried to repeatedly milk this one product over and over again. It hasn’t worked. The company tried to apply the veneer of the product to other products instead creating a new experience that would resonate with people.

It did not continue to grow, build on, and invest in what made the Razr successful. Instead, Motorola chose to imitate, not innovate. It repeatedly used the same language on different models and form factors. It added colors and used the same conventions, without life or soul. The company became stale almost overnight.

Motorola doesn’t have a design culture. It has an engineering culture that tries to be a design culture. But the company fundamentally failed to see this. On the operating system side, Motorola has never been able to design a great mobile phone user interface.

The user experience suffers as a consequence. Design goes beyond simply the physical form factor. A big difference exists between a good design and a great product. Motorola didn’t take the next steps to make the Razr the essential portal to people’s mobile experience and hasn’t been able to create consistent design cues across all customer touch points. Motorola might not even know that it matters but it does.

Design establishes the relationship between your company and your customers. So the complete design should incorporate what they see, interact with, and come in contact with. These touch points should not be allowed to just happen. They must be designed and coordinated in a way that gets you where you want to be with your customer to where you matter to them.

The message here is this: Really grasp this idea of design or you die. Your products themselves have to be great.