Designed Experiences: The Evolution of Intelligent Design

October 05 2009

“A business absolutely devoted to service will have only one worry about profits. They will be embarrassingly large.”

That was Henry Ford, who died in the radio age. Here in the 21st century “the customer experience” is the holy grail. Companies hold it up like a silver bullet from R&D. It’s worth remembering that even architects of mass production saw the customer, not the product, as the road to success.

In our customized world we want more than a well designed product, we demand the whole kit and kaboodle. With hit brands now, every user expectation is managed, every touchpoint is controlled, every molecule is polished. Take MINI, or the Smart ForTwo. They’re as socially-engineered as they are machine-engineered.

Established brands are an evolution, constantly adapting. Designed brands are born adapted. The IBM customer experience evolved; Apple’s was designed. British Airways: evolved; Virgin: designed. The cafe culture in Milan: a random evolution; the Starbucks empire it inspired: designed with a caffeinated eye.

What’s more user-centered? A hole-in-the-wall espresso bar in Milan, or the Starbucks on West Street in Anchorage? Starbucks—the designed version—hasn’t risked competing in Italy, but their model once printed money. Starbucks is a better business, but which is a better experience?

Designed experiences are gym-built, muscles trained to win. The bar is high, so the fall is harder. Recently I bought an iTunes gift card at a Mac store. It didn’t work. When I took it back, I was turned away: Mac can’t service iTunes. Mac the beautiful? Can’t service iTunes? If I’d bought it at Safeway I’d have had a new card or refund in a heartbeat. When a controlled experience like Mac screws up, it’s a startling glitch in the matrix. How about Facebook selling your history? Rotten karma.

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