Design thinking: Leading with experience

Marketers spend a lot of their time convincing people to buy their organisation’s products and services. But what if those same products and services were so well designed, they simply sold themselves?

Design and marketing have traditionally been close but distinct disciplines. One helps create the product, the other attracts people to purchase it. The process is generally a linear progression.

But recently some organisations have taken steps to bring the two disciplines closer together. With more and more consumers experiencing companies initially - and primarily - through the Web, and more and more products and services being Web-based, marketers are realising that design can play a larger role in customer experience.

Putting CX first

And as anyone who has attended a marketing conference in 2016 will have heard, customer experience is everything.

It is a message that has been taken to heart at global travel company, Contiki, which for the past 18 months has been undergoing a digital transformation process in close association with the Australian design agency Neo.

According to Contiki’s London-based vice president of marketing, Alexis Sitaropoulos, design is a function of the overall product experience.

“In terms of how consumers view design, they don’t separate the user experience of a website from the product experience they have with you,” he says. “To the consumer, they are kind of the same thing, and are all part of the broader brand experience. And that is something that is very important to us.”

While designers have always been important to Contiki from a marketing perspective, traditionally their influence has revolved around visual identity, branding and advertising.

“Now the way we see it, rather than the designers just being visual, the biggest challenge for them is how to interpret and satisfy the needs of the user,” he says. “We see that as a big source of innovation, so it is part of how we solve the problems of our consumers.”

What also sees designers become involve early in the customer experience design process, rather than slapping ‘lipstick on a pig’.

“From a product perspective, it is almost from the very outset of the conversation,” Sitaropoulos says. “We involve our designers in the research phase, so rather than having a product owner doing a focus group or some wireframe testing, we encourage our designers to do that. They can actually hear firsthand, and see the challenges that users are having with an existing product, to try to understand how they can design through that.

“And that is a difficult thing for a designer to do, because it is a different skill, and you also need people who can divorce themselves from their creation as the thing that’s being tested.”

This approach was put to the test recently when Contiki engaged Neo to work on a relaunch of its website. Sitaropoulos says the intention was to take significant cues from the physical world, in terms of adapting merchandising practices, and bringing to life the role of a travel agent online.

“That started not with functional or technical specifications – it started with a process of understanding the users’ needs and the problems they want to solve, and then delivering design solutions to fit with that and solve those problems,” Sitaropoulos says.

That Sitaropoulos has been able to gauge the success of the strategy has been vital to its development.

“We have seen considerable improvement in the work that we have done recently in terms of the Contiki website, and that is incrementally continuing to improve as we make sure the design team are at the centre of the how we move forward,” he says.

“It’s difficult sometimes to apply analytics to better design, because sometimes it is about how it makes someone feel about your brand. What we are looking for is improved performance or efficiency of the products we are involving the designers in.”

Bringing design and marketing together

The comingling of design and marketing has also been witnessed by senior strategist at digital marketing and communications agency Deepend, Kim Verbrugghe. She says that while design was traditionally most relevant in product development, greater personalisation has meant more competitive pressure for brands, pushing them from a commoditised product space into a service space, where people buy into the outcome promise by the brand.

“Design isn’t necessarily product design any more, but obviously has broadened to service design, experience design, and all those things,” Verbrugghe says. “For designers, it is important to realise that their job ultimately is to develop a solution with a purpose in mind.”

Verbrugghe says this is most often seen in travel and entertainment brands, where experience is critical.

“Those brands that have recognised that product design isn’t just the final product any more, but what you are actually designing is everything that comes before the purchase as well,” she says. “The whole path to purchase needs to be designed, and that all needs to ladder-up to the same experience and the same brand values.”

Design director at Contiki’s agency Neo, Michelle Gilmore, says while designers are being called in to develop customer experience, marketers are also playing a role earlier in the development of products and services.

“Product development teams are working closely with marketing teams, and marketing teams are getting involved earlier,” Gilmore says. “Instead of having a product that is very close to launch and then trying to wrap a value proposition around that, it is about these two disciplines working together to inform one another.

“There has always been tension between the designer and the marketer, and I really do believe that when the two are working closely together is when success happens.”

Gilmore says the integration of design and marketing also suits the current push towards authenticity within some brands.

“Now it is about being authentic and letting your product speak for itself, letting it shine and not trying to put spin around it,” she says.

Gilmore says this form of partnership is most often witnessed in startups, many of which are founded by digital designers.

“You have organisations that weren’t built around these legacy structures, and they don’t have enough funding to have these big marketing departments,” Gilmore says. “So you have essentially a product development team that understands marketing and is good at communication.”

How startups are using design

One startup to take the design concept to heart is Australian corporate travel management company, Locomote. Its chief marketing officer and co-founder, David Fastuca, is himself a designer by training.

“Design has been at the heart of everything we have done at Locomote, from the platform to the onboarding experience for our employees,” he says. “I am a big believer that people buy what they understand, and no matter how good a product is, if they don’t understand the value of it, people will be confused and won’t purchase. By clarifying the design of everything you do, whether it is a product, the packaging, and so on, it just has a flow-on effect through the whole company.”

Fastuca says this adherence to design principles has set Locomote apart from the much larger companies it competes with.

“When we first developed the platform and the look and feel, we had no experience in the corporate travel space whatsoever,” he says. “We took what we use every day, and what we love to do every day from leisure travel sites and outside of travel completely, and brought them into the corporate travel space.”

Locomote’s design-led approach has also influenced how the company creates content, including a recently-released ebook on growth for travel agencies.

“Rather than just ploughing the words in there, we spent as much time on this ebook as the first instance of our website,” Fastuca says. “Something like 100 hours went into this ebook, and everything we did was designed for a real purpose.

“And we saw great results from that. It wasn’t just downloaded, it was picked up and engaged with and used.”

But while the comingling of marketing and design might work well for a startup,not every brand is cut out for the design-ification of its marketing function. Verbrugghe says the factor most often retarding this development is corporate legacy.

“It does change the nature of the game, because we do need to see things from a holistic point of view, and you can’t just operate in your solos anymore,” she says. “If the mindset isn’t there and the culture is there you are always going to fight an uphill nettle and it just isn’t going to happen.”

At Contiki, Sitaropoulos says structures have been changed so that design strategy sits in the marketing team, not within technology.

“The head of design reports directly into me and is then one step further way to the CEO,” he says. “And our CEO takes a very keen interest – he has very bought into the value of design overall.

“The marriage between design and designers being problem solvers for our users is kind of the biggest shift in mindset that we have taken as part of this journey, and that has been really powerful.”

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