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Subject To Change: Creating Great Products & Services for an Uncertain World by Brandon Schauer, Todd Wilkens, Peter Merholz, David Verba

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Chapter 1. The Experience Is the Product

How do we deliver great products and services in an uncertain world? The thing to keep in mind, not just in the abstract, but truly and viscerally, are your customers and their abilities, needs, and desires.

This is a crucial time for businesses around the world—and we use the word “crucial” intentionally. We’re sitting at the crux of a fundamental shift in the ways in which businesses engage with their customers. There are many reasons for this shift—globalization, containerization, digitization—and these emerging forces are causing consternation for businesses that don’t quite know how to react. The old tools at their disposal, such as efficiency, optimization, just-in-time manufacturing, blitz marketing, and outsourcing no longer provide the gains or competitive advantages they once did.

The key to succeeding in the contemporary marketplace is to fundamentally change your relationship with customers. Once you stop thinking of your customers as consumers and begin approaching them as people, you’ll find a whole new world of opportunities to meet their needs and desires.

Seizing those opportunities is another matter. Businesses must stop thinking of their products and services as standalone offerings, and instead adopt a systems-oriented mindset that better serves people’s actual needs. Furthermore, to continually deliver high-quality products, businesses need to incorporate design approaches into their standard work practices and build an internal design competency. This doesn’t necessarily mean hiring designers, but at the very least it is critical to understand and appreciate the values and worldview that designers often bring.

Of course, it doesn’t end there; you still have to deliver your product or service. Contemporary life is too uncertain for overlong development cycles. By the time a product finally gets released, the world has often moved on. And so businesses need to move away from their onerous technological and engineering approaches, embracing nimbler, more flexible means when building products and services.

In this book, we’ll share what we’ve learned through observing industry trends and conducting our own work at Adaptive Path. But first, we’ll tell a story. This is a story about the birth of consumer electronics (although, technically, electricity isn’t even a part of the story).

You Press the Button, We Do the Rest

In 1886, Scientific American hailed “a new photographic apparatus” (Figure 1-1) as an exemplar of contemporary product design.

Engraving of a cutting-edge camera in its day.
Figure 1-1. Engraving of a cutting-edge camera in its day.

Note the complexity of the magazine’s description:

This apparatus consists of a box containing a camera, A, and a frame, C, containing the desired number of plates, each held in a small frame of black Bristol board. The camera contains a mirror, M, which pivots upon an axis and is maneuvered by the extreme bottom, B. This mirror stops at an angle of 45°, and sends the image coming from the objective to the horizontal plate, D, at the upper part of the camera. The image thus reflected is righted upon this plate.

As the objective is of short focus, every object situated beyond a distance of three yards from the apparatus is in focus. In exceptional cases, where the operator might be nearer the object to be photographed, the focusing would be done by means of the rack of the objective. The latter can also slide up and down, so that the apparatus need not be inclined when buildings or high trees are being photographed. The door, E, performs the role of a shade. When the apparatus has been fixed upon its tripod and properly directed, all the operator has to do is to close the door, P, and raise the mirror, M, by turning the button, B, and then expose the plate. The sensitized plates are introduced into the apparatus through the door, I, and are always brought automatically to the focus of the objective through the pressure of the springs, R. The shutter of the frame, B, opens through a hook, H, within the pocket, N. After exposure, each plate is lifted by means of the extractor, K, into the pocket, whence it is taken by hand and introduced through a slit, S, behind the springs, R, and the other plates that the frame contains. All these operations are performed in the interior of the pocket, N, through the impermeable, triple fabric of which no light can enter.

An automatic marker shows the number of plates exposed. When the operations are finished, the objective is put back in the interior of the camera, the doors, P and E, are closed, and the pocket is rolled up. The apparatus is thus hermetically closed, and, containing all the accessories, forms one of the most practical of systems for the itinerant photographer.

—La Nature

This passage has something of the quality of a modern-day consumer electronics operating manual. As “the most practical” system for a photographer on the go, doubtless this was on the cutting edge. However, given the complexity of its operation (by reaching the letter “S,” the reader must understand 19 separate elements), it’s no wonder that, at the time, photography was the province of either professionals or obsessed hobbyists—the geeks of their era.

Then, in 1888, an inventor named George Eastman designed, manufactured, and marketed a camera that forever changed photography, and also consumer products as a whole (Figure 1-2). Eastman had invented a new kind of film four years earlier, roll film, which was much easier to handle than fragile photographic plates. Had Eastman taken a typical engineering approach to designing his roll-film camera, he would have copied the complexity of the camera described above, just on a smaller scale, thus providing an incremental improvement on his predecessors. Instead, he recognized that his roll film could lead to a revolution if he focused on the experience he wanted to deliver, an experience captured in his advertising slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest.”

The original Kodak camera and a roll of Kodak film.
Figure 1-2. The original Kodak camera and a roll of Kodak film.

Thanks to the capabilities of this new film, operating the new camera was extremely simple. Unlike the apparatus described above, the user never needed to open this camera, and there were only three steps to take a picture (Figure 1-3): Pull the Cord (to prepare the shutter); Turn the Key (to advance the film); and Press the Button (to release the shutter). After you’d used 100 exposures, you would send the camera (or just the roll of film) to Eastman, and wait while your pictures were professionally developed and printed for you.

An advertisement demonstrates how easy the Kodak is to use.
Figure 1-3. An advertisement demonstrates how easy the Kodak is to use.

This level of accessibility began the consumer revolution in photography, and Eastman’s camera, the Kodak, became one of the first consumer technology brands. By approaching design with the customer in mind, and not simply as a collection of functional requirements, Eastman arrived at a radically different result.

Increasing the Importance of Design

Throughout the 20th century, businesses largely ignored the lessons from Eastman’s experience. Because of the relative simplicity of their offerings, companies felt that an experiential orientation was unnecessary. Products were developed from a technological and feature-based standpoint and, by-and-large, that was fine. An experiential approach to, say, shaving, wouldn’t gain you much advantage, and the nature of the tools necessitated a functional approach.

This perspective changed with the rise of computerization, the embedding of microchips in everything—in short, the increasing digitization of our world. Microchips allowed for rapid evolution in product complexity, and product designers, stuck in their old habits, did nothing to allay this. Moore’s Law, which states that the number of transistors on a chip doubles every two years, means that those chips packed more and more power, which product designers felt obliged to use.

With instantaneous worldwide digital communication and global shipping streamlined by containerization, the end of the 20th century was a time of even more rapid globalization. Manufacturing costs plummeted as production shifted to Asia. Adding features and functionality wasn’t much more expensive, and customers assumed that products that did more things must be better. Today, however, this belief system is reaching a breaking point. Customers now often return items that aren’t defective, and in fact work as planned, but turn out to be too complicated to figure out.

As global trends have developed, business management has come to rely on efficiency, optimization, and quality management to deliver value. The good news is that these approaches have worked, and worked well. Many organizations have become very lean, wasting less time, allowing fewer defects, and adopting more efficient processes. Ironically, the bad news is that this type of business optimization is increasingly commonplace. The processes for measuring and controlling efficiency are well-known and well-documented, and so in today’s world they no longer provide a significant competitive advantage.

As we plunge deeper into the 21st century, it’s becoming clear that companies need to heed George Eastman’s lessons. To cut through the complexity of a world that is both shrinking (in terms of the global village) and expanding (with respect to technological capability), businesses must take advantage of the power of design to realize true competitive advantages.

What Do We Mean by Design?

Design is gaining visibility in the world of business. Business reporters proclaim “The Power of Design,” as if they’ve just discovered a secret practice with untold powers. Obviously, design has been around for a while, but it’s been saddled with a host of connotations that haven’t necessarily served it well:

  • Design as aesthetics. Perhaps the most commonly held view of design is that it primarily distinguishes a product’s aesthetic appeal. Though aesthetics are valuable, this reduction of design to styling alone has limited design’s impact in matters that are more than skin deep.

  • Design as a distinct role. Design is like acting. There are a few gifted naturals, but most designers train long and hard to build the skills and sensitivities to balance form, flow, and function. Therefore, we see designers as professionals who specialize in activities like imagining, drawing, and modeling, which most of us were weaned away from in grade school. Sadly, this discourages non-designers from engaging in design activities to which they might provide a valuable contribution.

  • Design as a thing. The Museum of Modern Art in New York has a collection dedicated to design, and it features chairs, bowls, typewriters, and salt-and-pepper shakers. Some of the products were financial successes, like the Herman Miller Aeron Chair, and many were not, like Apple’s G4 Cube computer (Figure 1-4). This limits the discussion of design as an activity that produces precious artifacts, items that can be placed under glass in a curated display.

  • Design as savior or rock star. Flip through business magazines or attend a design-related conference and you might start to drink the Kool-Aid. “Design thinking” is “the new black.” Design is equated with the equally murky term “innovation.” Just design the way Apple does, and success will follow!

    Even Apple makes mistakes: the G4 Cube was worthy of MOMA, but not the market.
    Figure 1-4. Even Apple makes mistakes: the G4 Cube was worthy of MOMA, but not the market.

At Adaptive Path, and in this book, we take a different approach to the idea of design. At heart, we believe that design is an activity. As an activity, it incorporates these elements:

  • Empathy. Design must serve a human purpose, and so design requires an understanding of how people will interact with whatever you’re designing.

  • Problem solving. Design really shines when it’s used to address complex problems where the outcome is unclear, many stakeholders are involved, and the boundaries are fuzzy.

  • Ideation and prototyping. Design produces things, whether they’re abstract (schematics, blueprints, wireframes, conceptual models) or concrete (prototypes, physical models). Design is a creative activity, and thus requires actually creating something.

  • Finding alternatives. Design is less about the analysis of existing options than the creation of new options. Sometimes that means looking at existing options in new ways, and at other times that means creating from scratch. An effective design process typically offers many solutions to a problem.

While there are people who are trained and have deeper experience engaging in these activities, it’s far too limiting to consider design the purview of only those called “designers.” As we’ll discuss throughout this book, for businesses to succeed, design must become an organizational competency.

Technology, Features, Experience

Apple is a company that has parlayed design into phenomenal business success, driven by its CEO, Steve Jobs. Here’s what he has said about delivering beautiful solutions:

“When you start looking at a problem and it seems really simple, you don’t really understand the complexity of the problem. Then you get into the problem, and you see that it’s really complicated, and you come up with all these convoluted solutions. That’s sort of the middle, and that’s where most people stop. . . . But the really great person will keep on going and find the key, the underlying principle of the problem—and come up with an elegant, really beautiful solution that works. That’s what we wanted to do with Mac.”

– Steve Jobs[1]

In that quote, uttered 17 years before the introduction of the iPod and 23 years before the iPhone, Jobs neatly captures the evolution of product offerings. You can strip it down even further to just three key essentials: technology, features, and experience.

Products necessarily begin with the technology that makes them possible. And the introduction of a new technology can establish a company in the market. When VCRs came on the consumer market in the late ’70s, all that really mattered is that they did something you could never do before—record television shows so that you could play them back on your own time. It didn’t matter that a VCR took up a lot of space and didn’t look pretty and wasn’t particularly intuitive. It’s an example of the walking dog syndrome: a dog doesn’t walk very well on its hind legs alone, but we’re fascinated and thrilled because it can walk that way at all.

Eventually competitors mimic your technology, and features become the important differentiator. You load your offering with more stuff, and it fills the product’s packaging with bullet points. In the 1980s and into the 1990s, VCRs began loading up on functionality by adding VCR Plus, on-screen menus, various playback speeds, child locks, jog wheels, 21-day timers, the ability to record one frame at a time, and more. As Jobs said, “Then you get into the problem, and you see that it’s really complicated, and you come up with all these convoluted solutions. That’s sort of the middle, and that’s where most people stop.” It’s for this reason the blinking 12:00 became the icon of poorly designed consumer electronics, and most folks used the VCR as simply a videocassette player, viewing whatever they rented.

“But the really great person will keep on going and find the key, the underlying principle of the problem—and come up with an elegant, really beautiful solution that works.” At some point, to stay viable, product categories require a quantum evolution that takes them beyond technology and features and on to the satisfaction of a customer experience. The VCR begat the DVR, and TiVo, the leading DVR brand, is successful because the designers began with an experience-focused mindset, and developed the product to fulfill those needs (Figure 1-5).

The friendliness and approachability of the TiVo logo demonstrates the company’s desire to connect with emotion and experience.
Figure 1-5. The friendliness and approachability of the TiVo logo demonstrates the company’s desire to connect with emotion and experience.

In some ways, it’s unfair to compare TiVo with earlier VCRs because the underlying technology is fundamentally different. But, as with George Eastman and his roll film, TiVo took a new technology (hard-drive based, digital video recording) and realized they could change the game if they focused on the customers’ experiences. So rather than simply shoving this hard drive inside a VCR, their experience orientation led to a fundamental rethinking of people’s relationship to television. And even though TiVo hasn’t been the runaway success that its early advocates hoped, this experiential approach has made TiVo the only successful independent DVR after its primary competitor, ReplayTV, went bankrupt.

The Experience Is the Product

We live in an increasingly uncertain world, where the tools that served us well for so long no longer do. Technology isn’t sufficient; we can’t simply add features to attract an audience. There is no more efficiency to squeeze out of our operations, nor defects to remove from our products.

How do we deliver great products and services in an uncertain world? The thing to keep in mind, not just in the abstract, but truly and viscerally, are your customers and their abilities, needs, and desires. When you do that, when you truly empathize with the people you serve, you’ll realize that for them the experience is the product we deliver, and the only thing they truly care about.



[1] Steven Levy, Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer That Changed Everything (Penguin, 2000), p. 139.

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