Why all design projects must be intentional?

Let me tell you a story about how companies flourish or languish. By the end of that story I will circle back to how they all relate to successful design projects. It starts by taking a look at what Michael Porter has to say about strategy.

“Strategy is the creation of a unique and valuable position, involving a different set of activities. The essence of strategic positioning is to choose activities that are different from rivals.”

— Michael Porter

Porter argues that without a solid strategy, businesses will not see sustainable profitability. In order to improve competitive advantage and sustainability, a company needs to be strategic in all of their actives. Yes, this refers to all typical operation and includes product design all the way to the way the company tweets.

When a company keeps improving its operational effectiveness, such as technology it uses, it’s a good start. However, Porter argues that it’s never going to be enough in setting your company apart. Technology, management techniques, input and output improvements can all be easily replicated. It’s not a competitive advantage. A competitive strategy is what you do to be different than your competition.

Why should sears print their catalogs with Donnelley?

The major American printing companies in the 1980s included R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company, Quebecor, World Color Press, and Big Flower Press. All four companies had the exact same offers, exact same technology and were fighting hand-in-hand for the exact same customers. In turn, none stood out from each other. None has superior profits. None had a solid competitive advantage. It didn’t matter for Sears if they printed their annual catalog with Donnelley or Big Flower Press. Which is why in 1993, after a 97-year run, Sears took their business from Donnelley elsewhere.

On the other hand, Southwest Airlines is a perfect example of a company who has a strategy to be different. Instead of doing what every other airline was, Southwest chose to do things differently. For instance, Southwest avoids large airports and instead provides short flights between mid-sized cities. They don’t offer many of amenities other airlines do, such as meals or first class seats. The airline keeps everything as plain and as simple as possible. This allows them to be more efficient at loading and unloading passengers and fly more often. All of their actions add up to lower operational costs which are reflected in their ticket prices. Today, Southwest flies more passengers than their competitors. They have been profitable for 33 consecutive years, unlike their competitors.

We won’t let you do that because it would suck…

Let’s fulfil the obligation of speaking about Apple. The company is synonymous with design. More importantly, Apple has always been strategic about design. That’s how Apple became Apple. The company is obsessed with being intentional about every choice they make. Marco Arment describes Apple products as opinionated because Apple understands what it’s making and for who.

“Apple’s products are opinionated. They say, ‘We know what’s best for you. Here it is. Oh, that thing you want to do? We won’t let you do that because it would suck.’”

— Marco Arment

What Arment is trying to say is that good design is assertive, subjective and restrictive to best serve the needs of the customer. John Gruber feels the exact same way.

“Apple offers far fewer configurations. Thus, [Apple products] are, to most minds, subjectively better-designed – but objectively, they’re more designed. Apple makes more of the choices than do PC makers.”

— John Gruber

The same exact thing can be said about Southwest, Ikea, Dyson, GE, Pixar, Netflix, Nike, Dropbox (more on that one later), Basecamp, Snapchat, GoPro, WholeFoods,  Airbnb, Nest, Lush Cosmetics and so on. Just think about any one of your favorite products or brands.

Learning from Chrysler’s faulty logic

B. Joseph Pine II interviewed the managers at Chrysler’s Mall of America store. Pine asked them about their design intentions for their store. The manager answered, “to get the word out to consumers about what great cars and trucks Chrysler builds in a non-threatening, non-sales environment.” Pine suggested they ought to think about the customer’s experience in the store. The manager replied, “Oh no — if we did that, customers would feel they had a right to tell us what they wanted to do here.” And that’s why Chrysler doesn’t make the list above list.

Why did the Galaxy S5 fail?

There are many reasons products and companies fail. The most important reasons include failure to understand consumer needs and wants, fixing a non-existing problem, targeting the wrong market or poor execution. Of course, there are others, but these four can easily be avoided.

David Pogue has a hilarious summary of Samsung’s Galaxy S5

“If you had to characterize the direction Samsung has chosen for its new flagship phone – well, you couldn’t. There isn’t one … Overall, the sense you get of the S5 is that it was a dish prepared by a thousand cooks. It’s so crammed with features and options and palettes that it nearly sinks under its own weight.”

— David Pogue

Year-over-year comparison between the Galaxy S5 and its predecessor, Galaxy S4, show that Samsung sold four million fewer units. On top of that, Samsung was so confident in the success of S5 that they increased the production order by 20% before the actual launch which later just sat in their factories.

Why does this matter? Because based on Pogue’s review, the S5 didn’t differentiate itself which is the whole point of a strategy. It failed to understand their customer’s needs and wants. The S5 catered to everybody so it fixed no one’s problems. It didn’t offer something new. The S5 didn’t understand its target audience if they even had one. The whole thing was poorly executed and so on.

HP Touchpad failed to kill the iPad in 2011. In reality, it failed to do anything different nor better than the iPad. It lasted 49 days at BestBuy only selling 25,000 units. It repeated the same failures as the S5. The Nook failed to take over Amazon’s Kindle. Even Nike’s Fuel fitness tracker failed to catch on.

How can a competitive strategy help a company grow?

Yet, we see amazing success stories like Dropbox. Drew Houston, Dropbox’s CEO, said that the biggest lesson was to make a product filled with value. When the company first started out, they were creating a product that most people didn’t want or even understand. Yet, the founders persevered. They figure out a way to make Dropbox valuable and therefore desirable. They narrowed down their target audience and spoke with them regularly to learn more about their wants and needs.

Houston admitted that there was a lot of pressure to do things in a more traditional way. But that turned out to be terrible advice which, thankfully for Dropbox, they did not act on. Instead of following their competitor’s footsteps, Dropbox followed a strategy focused on learning everything they could about their market and audience. They wanted to know how Dropbox fits into their users’ lives. In short, Dropbox made a simple promise and delivered on it. Their competitors made complicated promises which they often failed to accommodate.

Know your factories. Know your costs. Always ask why.

Everlane launched in 2010 and has grown tremendously ever since. It’s founder, Michael Preysman set out to make Everlane radically transparent. (It’s their tagline and way of doing business at once.) Everlane was founded on openness, accountability, and transparency. Their website shows exactly how much a product costs them to make and how much their mark up is. They openly talk about the factories they use, why they use them and how they are contributing to improving the factories, working condition and the lives of their workers. Of course, Everlane provides high-quality items for sale. But the thing that made them a successful company thus far is their dedication to being different through transparency.

More example include Amazon Prime, Medium, Stripe, BumbleLush and so on.

Bringing it back to intent and design projects

Taking the time to work out an effective strategy will ensure that the end deliverable is doing what you need it to, whether we’re working on a new smartphone or landing page. The process can be broken down into three steps.

#1 – your company

First, it starts with understanding your company. What values do you have? What’s your mission? What makes you different? What makes you better? How can this design project highlight these strategic differences for you?

Michael Porter, has a few much deeper suggestions such as: Which of our product or service varieties are the most distinctive? Which of our product or service varieties are the most profitable? Which of our customers are the most satisfied? Which customers, channels, or purchase occasions are the most profitable? Which of the activities in our value chain are the most different and effective?

A website design project should be asking all of those questions from the beginning (especailly when branding is to be redone too). Why? Because a website is at the centre of most online funnels. Answering these questions will allow your company to know where to focus and what “opportunities” to forgo. Understanding your company, is the first step in understanding your potential opportunities for growth.

#2 – your customers

Second, these questions continue to your customers and target audience. Who are they? What are their pain points? What do they want, need and expect? What kind of language do they communicate in? Where do they hang out online? What kind of lifestyle do they lead? Asking many of these questions will allow you to outsmart your competition and grow your business.

Moreover, these questions need to be asked constantly so you know how to better serve your current and potential buyers. Not just when you’re first developing your product and company, but on regular basis.

Ritz Carlton’s hotel employees keep track of guests requests and preferences such as extra towels, coconut water in the minibars or organic fruit at breakfast. When there is a clear pattern of requests, Ritz Carlton implements the requests into their hotels. An intentional design project will keep this in mind for your website too.

#3 – Implementing this knowledge

Next, your design project ought to take this information and come up with a viable solution. That’s because good designs are specific to the end-users. Good design allows the user to do what they want to/need to do so well that later they will thank you for it. What, why and for who we’re creating the design matters a lot more than anything else. (Kind of exactly like Ritz Carlton…)

Many people think of design as creating something pretty. Whether you want to increase email sign-ups or monthly revenue, just designing something “pretty” won’t cut it. Developing a new product or feature just because it sounds good isn’t an effective strategy either. Every design project needs to ensure that the needs of the business and their customers (users, buys or visitors, etc) are being addressed. It needs to be intentional in order to be purposeful. You can’t do that without being intentional. Otherwise, you’re wasting time, money, enegery, and resources.

Okay, okay I’ll tell you why

A strategy refers to any and all actions a company makes, including design projects. I wrote this article to get you to think about how a company’s whole strategy can affect its bottom line. With a good, competitive strategy in place, companies grow. Without them, they fail. These strategies need to be implemented in the websites too! That’s how you improve your online retention rates and other metrics.

This article started with big corporations like Donnelley and Southwest. Both of those are established companies who can afford a mistake here or there. Even Samsung can afford a couple of failed product without tanking. Being a smaller company gives you a lot less room to fail.

Will a poorly executed landing page project tank your company? Probably not. They are fairly easy to fix in a quick timeframe. But why even take the chance? What if your company is centred around a single mobile app that’s made for the wrong target market or solving the wrong problem? That actually will tank your company.

The takeaway

Without this approach, the design project will fail and you will be buying an equivalent of a Nook from the designer. Don’t do this to your company. Don’t waste your time, money or effort. Approach ever design project with intention first. Hell, approach any project with intention first. Know how your company is different and who are your customers. In the end, you’ll get the best possible design because it will actually be purposeful for your company’s goals.