Fast Company

Toothbrushes, TiVo, and Twitter: Designing Great Relationships

I was on an airplane yesterday. But before I got on board, I had one of those awkward conversations with a ticket agent that keeps vice presidents of customer service awake at night. She said, "That other person you spoke with at the airlines? He was lying to you."

But...but...but...aren't you the airline? I thought to myself.

Companies are trying to create positive relationships with all of us. And not just service businesses, where the relationship is with other flesh-and-blood people. Manufacturers of shampoo and telephones and discount furniture want to create lasting relationships with loyal customers too, and they rely on their products to do most of the talking.

oralb toothbrush In olden days, way back before the Industrial Revolution, stuff was created in an intimate setting. There was someone who needed something and there was someone who made it for them. In every case, there existed a relationship between maker and customer.

Today the practice of design is spreading virulently, infecting the business management world among other things. And of course it should. Our modern era of mass production requires enormous organizations to replicate the relationship of a designer artisan with her customer. If that organization doesn't know how to listen to or inspire the customer, the relationship will die.

Tivo Logo Understanding the actions, anatomies and aspirations of humans is foundational for creating better products, better relationships.

Case in point is the Oral-B CrossAction toothbrush. It's a manual toothbrush that was born out of intense observation of how people hold a brush and resulted in a game changer: a brush that people love because of its comfort and effectiveness, used to perform a job that is about taking care of oneself. Home run.

TiVo came into being with a similar focus on the customer. The product was a revolution when it arrived because it resisted the Silicon Valley urge to be a technology product. It focused instead on television viewing as an experience and delivered my TV on my schedule. More importantly, because the relationship that TiVo designed for customers is about fetching entertainment easily, they are quickly becoming a platform for delivering internet-based content on my terms.

Jet Blue Twitter Twitter as a platform has this kind of potential to create a charismatic and empowering relationship. To date, it's been an exciting phenomenon. But like human relationships that seem exciting at the beginning, doesn't it need to reveal something deeper about itself to become a lasting marriage? Can't Twitter at the very least be easier to talk to? It feels to me like the relationship I had with computers before graphical user interfaces. Useful, but not endearing.

What companies do you think have effective maker-consumer relationships?

Read more of John Edson's Powers of Design blog

As a seasoned product developer with a background in both analytical and creative thinking, John Edson's primary role is to build new programs for clients with the right innovation processes led by the right creative team to make a real difference for clients. His experience includes managing the birth of successful products for Philips, Motorola, InFocus, and several startups. Products developed under John's management have been honored with accolades from the ID Magazine Design Annual, the Chicago Athenaeum Good Design Award, iF Hannover, PC Magazine's Editor's Choice Award, and IDSA's Industrial Design Excellence Award.

Developing the contribution of design creativity and innovation process in the service of business, society and the environment, John explores the impact of design creativity in a weekly podcast, Icon-o-Cast, that he hosts with guest speakers ranging from Business Week's Bruce Nussbaum to author and cognitive scientist Don Norman. John is also a regular speaker, having lectured at Wharton School, given a keynote at Intertech's Flexible Display Technologies conference, and participated in a talk for the Business Marketing Association of Northern California. A lecturer at Stanford, John teaches courses in product design and creativity.

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2 Comments

  • Louise Books

    I like the phrase "empowering relationship", it accurately describes companies that successfully give customers control, options, belonging or an experience beyond the purchase of their product. Ikea, Apple, Starbucks, the Obama election campaign are all examples that come to mind. I find Twitter at it's best in moments of crisis, it's power to the user is allowing them to respond quickly and effectively during otherwise crippling events. Such as now with Iran or during California's gas shortage.