Useful Design: The Link Between Acquisition And Obsession

Useful Design: The Link Between Acquisition And Obsession

In this opinion piece, Luke Parry (pictured below) from Sydney digital design company Wilson Fletcher, says Aussie companies need to start fighting back from overseas competitors lining-up to nick their customers…

Gone is the time when companies had the advantage of being one of two competitors in a market, although those halcyon days are perhaps still skewing the perceptions of executive boards here in Australia. The ‘Lucky Country’ has been so lucky that its corporates became complacent, neglecting to adequately service customers. A horde of user-centric international companies and energetic startups are pillaging their customer base.


In traditionally reactionary manner, many Australian organisations are currently devoting untold time and resources to innovation labs and transformation programmes. But to what end?

Companies seem to be prioritising their own strategic ambitions over the unmet needs of their past, present and potential customers. In order to make the transition from being used, to being useful, the missing ingredient is vision.

While the Aussie population is early-adopting in nature, its stock exchange is mostly banks and mining companies, and the corporate culture is notoriously unadventurous. There are limited traditional companies who have successfully transformed into truly user- centric organisations. But this doesn’t mean that they haven’t broken out of the outdated three-year strategic plan. 

As Jeff Bezos put it in 2011: “If everything you do needs to work on a three-year time horizon, then you’re competing against a lot of people. But if you’re willing to invest on a seven-year time horizon, you’re now competing against a fraction of those people, because very few companies are willing to do that.” 

Companies who implement design methodologies in order to define a strong vision and make users’ needs their strategic priority will be considerably more successful than those who don’t. You only need a quick look at the DMI Design Index to realise this. The crux of the issue is that the majority of the business world still sees design as an aesthetic undertaking, rather than a discipline that should be at the core of a corporate strategy.

Take 3M, for example. It’s an unassuming conglomerate with more than 75,000 individual products in market. While they have a fanatical Post-It following (our studios included), you wouldn’t expect them to be an experiential company. Yet in the early 2000s a young designer, Mauro Porcini (who later became Pepsi’s Chief Design Officer), convinced management to bring in revered design firm Pininfarina to design a multimedia projector. The new model was released and sales doubled. 3M has been integrating design ever since, having come to the realisation that the product and experience have become one and the same.

Organisations who are striving to attract customers don’t have to twist arms to get business through the door. Positive experiences become both marketing and retention. We all know why we use Uber; it’s easy, convenient and the customer is always right (and their customer service makes sure we’re rapidly told so).

In a homogenised market, outstanding customer experiences are the products and services designed with a view to being indispensable to users.

Product features, and even entire service propositions, are now a commodity, so the experience itself is the key to every customer’s heart; which is the all-important step towards a long-term relationship with their wallet. So what if a competitor is slightly cheaper? A well-designed experience makes your service more attractive.

In a homogenised market, outstanding customer experiences are those which make products and services as useful as possible, with a view to being indispensable to users. In order for that to happen, customer-centricity must be a strong foundation for company values.

Professor Rita McGrath’s research into the benefits of embracing ‘transient advantage’ over ‘sustainable competitive advantage’ has found that a company can stay ahead of the pack by rapidly creating concurrent new opportunities through increased fluidity and customer-centricity.

It is no longer sufficient to merely satisfy your customers. You have to be more considerate than this to secure your market. In the words of Mauro Porcini. “You surprise. You enter the sacred field of the magic, of the extraordinary, of the memorable.”

Spotify is a great example of a company that keeps their customers engaged. I’ll most likely be a lifelong paying user of Spotify because their incredible experience is highly useful to me, and I find it indispensable for discovering new music. No wonder, considering their design chief believes “music should feel effortless—there should be nothing between you and its enjoyment”. Their service goes beyond basic functionality by creating new usefulness.

Any pivot of the traditional Australian commercial sector to a design-focused one is something that will take significant effort from executive teams. What’s clear is that both design and business should be trying their hardest to create a fruitful relationship.

Customers deserve it. And companies need it.

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