#hamontux was a one-day mini-conference in Hamilton, Ontario (my hometown!). I gave a small talk on why I think design is a differentiator.
Hi, I’m Tom Creighton, I lead product design at Wealthsimple
Before I dive in, let me ask – how many people have heard of Wealthsimple
(it’s an online investment platform – but that’s just a startuppy way of saying it’s a way to help save money for the future)
And how many people want to retire at some point?
So how does this all tie into why design matters?
I think design especially matters in the world of fintech, insurtech, medtech – all the startups that are eating old-school, legacy businesses
I think Steph’s talk from this morning was super amazing, I could have called this talk “Why Disney Magic matters”
but really it’s something that I think is critically important for all types of companies
design matters because it’s a delivery mechanism for experiences
and through experiences we establish relationships
when you’re building a product or service that ideally works throughout someone’s entire life, that’s there from the time they start investing to the time they’re ready to – [finger guns] retire – you are FOR SURE building a relationship
So this is an organizing principle that I think about quite a lot –
– design and the considered experience of our product is a huge, huge differentiator for us at Wealthsimple, and I want to dive into why that is
… and I think we can think about this in a few ways
– how experience is the most important differentiator and how design is the vehicle for that
– how design actually allows you to outpace the commoditization of technology
– and how we actually do the work of differentiating with design – what are the things we actually need to be thinking about?
If we step back in time a little bit – travel back with me to the late 90s and early 2000s
we were just kind of figuring out what this whole “web app” world might look like
products were being built that were definitely focusing on features
this is a pattern that was carried over from desktop software, engineers and product managers were taught that piling on more features than the competitor meant the product was robust, that this was their competitive advantage
… maybe they were right, at that time
But we’ve definitely moved on since then
Where I think design now makes a significant, business-building difference is in how we package and deliver our services.
Not from a technical or platform viewpoint, but from an overall design approach.
How have we actually chosen to deliver, to communicate, the product or service we’re offering?
What is the vehicle – what is the design strategy – through which we’re mediating our relationships with our customers?
When I say “vehicle” or “delivery” I don’t mean the platform – could be web, mobile, or on into chatbots, VR, augmented reality, whatever
what I mean is how we design specifically to make a connection, to differentiate by creating experiences that appeal to the emotional and sensorial needs of our clients.
So if we back up a bit, I think that inflection point between “features” and “specifically created experiences” was really a huge and significant turning point in our expectations for the tools we use day to day
I think we can see this SUPER clearly in the original iMac
computers – even Apple computers before the iMac, were focused on speed, specs, components.
… and then the iMac came along and demolished the non-designed, non-experiential strategy
And I think this is really important because the iMac was specifically designed to communicate character and to be appealing.
It created an immediate emotional connection.
And what I’m trying to get at is that we can differentiate by NOT focusing on the TECH
We think about well-designed objects not as what’s enabled by the underlying platform, but a more intangible experiential layer.
Another great example of this is the rise of phone photography
The iPhone is the most popular camera in the world, like it’s not even a contest
It’s _definitely_ not a better camera than … like, an actual camera
And I think this is a really valuable takeaway
the iPhone didn’t win because it’s a better camera
but because the experience of it, the design of it, encompasses more than just its camera-ness
Not just photography, but communication and sharing
there’s the emotional connection with my friends and family, the pleasurable payoff of sharing and getting likes
And this is very intentionally designed.
so why are we seeing design being increasingly raised up this way, as a core driver for business rather than just another tool in the toolbelt?
I think we’re seeing the factors in play that I just mentioned – we’re not focusing on the technology anymore because tech is no longer a competitive advantage
I could order enough compute capacity in like 5 minutes after this talk to rival what would formerly be hundreds of thousands dollars worth of hardware – that’s commoditization
In terms of digital products, we’re very much in a phase that isn’t driven by those fundamental tech advances any more – connectivity, mobile computing, wearable computing, etc. – those things are HERE.
The end-to-end experience – the lifecycle experience – of the product is now what makes it stand out.
Our habit, especially with startups, is to think ourselves as tech companies, especially when we’re “disrupting” 🙂
But when we’re disrupting with technology –we’re offering a compelling result story, instead of a compelling experience story
A company that saw the writing on the wall is Adobe
So Adobe’s CEO said: Adobe circa 2008 was an example of a company at a crossroads
He said: “At the time, our growth was stagnating. Mobile was upending Adobe’s desktop software model. We weren’t mission-critical to where our customers were heading.”
“A brand that hopes to survive and prosper must transform into an experience business”
–– so that’s a business where delivering an amazing customer experience is the top-line business goal. A great experience separates market leaders from the rest of the pack.
So …. if you’ve used Adobe software within the last few years I don’t know if you’d describe it as “amazing” per se …
–– but it’s unarguable that they’re in a very different, and very differently-focused, position than they were a decade ago.
Another quick example, especially as we seem to be heading into a self-driving world, is design-thinking automotive companies
By necessity, car companies are transforming into design- and experience-driven businesses.
In the past: they sold cars, full stop.
But cars themselves are becoming more experiential, more focused on responding to customer desires.
–– this is the interior of a concept car
–– so this again is, realizing that being in car is becoming less about CARS. This is no longer about the displacement or horsepower or even the actual driving.
The technology fades away – I don’t really want to think about my odometer, maintenance, or oil changes, etc
the technology is catered more to a performative, emotional, tactile connection
–– going back to our photography example – this kind of approach doesn’t win because it’s a better car, but because it’s a: more useful living room, or a more mobile office. It’s functioning in an expanded context.
It’s an object that’s been reframed in terms of – experience.
I think it’s fair to say that I strongly believe that businesses that aren’t already transforming themselves into design-focused, experience-focused companies need to start thinking about how they’re going to get there.
But we’ve been talking at a very 10000 ft view
what are some guideposts we can think about to get us there?
Here’s some things I’m thinking about:
Technology really needs to be transparent to the customer. The experience shouldn’t be about the cool tech you’re using – even if you’re using extremely cool tech – but what that technology enables.
Unique and good design ALONE does not lead to a successful product.
– in a post-iPhone world, a good UI – by itself – is not a differentiator, it’s expected, it’s table stakes.
– It means it’s time to focus more on what can’t easily be commoditized or copied.
that is to say, think about the value your product and your product uniquely is creating for people.
Users just want it to work, to deliver on the promise, to give them the experience they expected.
So if design is our differentiator, how can we actually keep up with the new level of experience demanded by our customers?
I definitely believe that experience has already over-taken features and even price as the key aspect of how people are evaluating products
And this is due to the role of the customer changing from isolated, information-poor, and passive
to connected, informed, and active
and these are trends that are only going to accelerate, which means we NEED to think about delivering on that customer connection
we need to understand where our customers are experiencing pain with their current products, what their stated and unstated needs are
This pain is ACUTE in fintech – we’re not creating a one-off, snack-sized app and our ultimate goal is NOT to drive signups to the product …
… but to build a relationship that lasts decades.
And I think this is the changing role of design that gives it continued and critical value.
–– and this could be manifested as spending more time with our users, observing, asking more questions, going where they go
–– that is to say: less thinking about the UI, the visual, the flow –– and doubling down on building trust, building – as you might have guessed – empathy.
Thinking about where in our product we can built in those emotive and sensorial moments of delight.
Our job as designers can’t – CAN NOT be to compete on the mechanisms of the experience, like taking the best photo.
Computers and tech are already pretty great at the raw functionality piece, and getting better.
Our jobs have to be about bringing back that human factor, not thinking about the pixels but thinking about the holistic, beginning-to-end experience.
People are going to create a relationship with your product whether you like it or not.
If you don’t design with that in mind, fewer users will find meaning, you’ll have less impact.
If you DO design for that – in short, lead with theexperience, not with tech – you’ll build that emotional bond, build trust, and build your business.