Returning to the Surface

26 October 2009 Tim Brown

In an exclusive extract from his new book Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organisations and Inspires Innovation, author Tim Brown shows how we can apply the principles of design beyond the studio to many of the most urgent challenges facing business.

I fly between San Francisco and New York too often, but it’s a trip I enjoy making. Coming from Britain, New York represents iconic America for me. It was the first US city that I visited, and I always experience a twinge of excitement at the prospect of a return. Not so long ago, however, the flight was something that just had to be tolerated. The sum total of old airplanes, cramped space, miserable food, poor entertainment systems, inconvenient schedules and indifferent service stripped away what should be the incomparable magic of flight.

In 2004, still reeling from the aftermath of 9/11, United Airlines introduced a new service on the San Francisco–New York route called p.s. (for Premium Service) that attempted to solve some of these issues. In a stroke, United leapfrogged its competitors. Most of the cabin of the 757s was converted to business seats, since the vast majority of the customers on this route are business travellers. Leg room was increased measurably, but the new configuration also created a feeling of roominess in the cabin. United introduced better food service and provided personalised DVD players to its business passengers.

"An experience must be as finely crafted and precision-engineered as any other product."

These improvements helped set United p.s. apart from its competitors, but there was one aspect of the new service that particularly transformed the experience for me as a passenger: the added floor space altered the boarding experience. Not only did I now have plenty of space to stow my gear without getting in the way of fellow passengers, but that deadly 20 or 30 minute interval between boarding and takeoff became a social experience.

On almost every flight I would find myself chatting with my neighbours without impatient passengers trying to squeeze past. Even before the doors closed and our tray tables were returned to the upright position, United managed to make boarding the aircraft a social experience that set my expectations for the remainder of the flight.

The net effect reinforced the sense of excitement and anticipation I feel when I travel. The experience makes a connection to my emotions and not just to my schedule.

Buried in my experience with the corporate jet set is one of the most complex challenges facing any organisation committed to the principles of design thinking: when we sit on an airplane, shop for groceries, or check into a hotel, we are not only carrying out a function but having an experience. That function can be compromised if the experience attending it is not designed with the same mindfulness a good engineer brings to a product or an architect to a building.

This chapter turns to the design of experiences, examining three themes that make experiences meaningful and memorable: First, we now live in what Joseph Pine and James Gilmore christened an ‘experience economy’ in which people shift from passive consumption to active participation. Second, the best experiences are not scripted at corporate headquarters but delivered on the spot by service providers. And third, implementation is everything. An experience must be as finely crafted and precision-engineered as any other product.

A good idea is no longer enough

Innovation has been defined as a good idea executed well. This is a good start. Unfortunately, too much emphasis falls on the first half of that proposition. I have seen countless examples of good ideas that never gained traction for the simple reason of poor execution. Most of them never reach the market, and those that do end up littering the stockrooms of electronics stores and supermarkets.

New products or services may be doomed for all sorts of reasons: uneven quality, unimaginative marketing, unreliable distribution, or unrealistic pricing. Even when all the metrics and mechanics of business are in place, however, a poorly executed idea will most likely fail. The problem may lie with the physical design of the product - too big, too heavy, too complex.

Likewise, the touchpoints for a new service - the retail space or software interface - may not connect to consumers. These are failures of design, and they can usually be fixed. Increasingly, however, ideas fail because people demand more of them than reliable performance in an acceptable package.

The components of a product need to come together to create a great experience. This is a much more complicated proposition. There have been many explanations for this new level of heightened expectation. Among the most compelling is Daniel Pink’s analysis of what might be called the psychodynamics of affluence. In A Whole New Mind, Pink argues that once our basic needs are met - as they already have been for most people in the affluent societies of the West - we tend to look for meaningful and emotionally satisfying experiences.

"The components of a product need to come together to create a great experience."

We need only note the disproportionate growth of the service - entertainment, banking, health care - economies relative to manufacturing. Moreover, these services have gone far beyond the support of basic needs: Hollywood movies, video games, gourmet restaurants, continuing education, ecotourism, and destination shopping have grown dramatically in recent years. Their value lies in the emotional resonance they create.

The Walt Disney Company may be the clearest example of an experience business, and we should not assume that it is only about entertainment. Experiences are deeper and more meaningful. They imply active participation, not passive consumption, which can happen on many different levels.

A family trip to Disney World may be quite stressful but most visitors remember it as one of the great experiences of family life.

The real meaning of the experience economy then, is not primarily entertainment. The hierarchy of value they describe in their influential book - from commodities to products to services to experiences - corresponds to a fundamental shift in how we experience the world, from the primarily functional to the primarily emotional. Understanding this shift, many companies now invest in the delivery of experiences. Functional benefits alone, it seems, are no longer enough to capture customers or create the brand distinction to retain them.

From Change by Design. Copyright © 2009 by Tim Brown. All rights reserved. Published by arrangement with HarperBusiness, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.