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Designed Experiences: The Evolution of Intelligent Design

"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.

evolution of man

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.

Here's one. In April last year, I stayed at the W Hotel on 49th Street in Manhattan for the last time. Ever.

W is part of Starwood, a grab bag of 9 hotel groups. It was created to answer user demand—lifestyle for hipster business travelers—and to plug a gap in the corporate spread. 'The difference with W is in the details', we're told. And there's no shortage. Textures, lighting, music, phrases like "storybook encounter of style and soul".

W hotels are a bit precious, a bit self-conscious for my taste. But I was a Starwood member and the location was perfect. When I checked out I realized I'd left a portfolio case. So I called the front desk. They'd check and call. No call. I called the Concierge who called Housekeeping. No answer, so she gave me the number. I called Housekeeping from the airport. No bag. They promised to get back to me.

It's October now and the leaves are falling. No word yet. It's been 18 months, and in my dark moments I wonder if it really is true love. But then I wipe away the tears and read back through the 84 emails that the W and Starwood marketing machines have sent me since I last saw my bag. And apparently I'm still totally on a backstage pass with them, I'm absolutely a sleek prince in their "Climate of Cool". So our relationship must be solid after all.


But the truth is, when I walked out of the hotel I left the relationship. They blew it, by paying the stylist more than the staff. All form, no function. Bad design.

I'm out one portfolio bag, $50 at Pearl Paint. They're out one lifetime customer for nine hotel chains worldwide. Oh, and my word of mouth.

Read more of Graham Button's Like It or Not blog
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Graham Button is a writer from London who worked in advertising for more than twenty years. He took the scenic route to Genesis, passing through agencies in Hong Kong, Toronto and finally New York, where he was a creative director and executive vice president at Grey Worldwide. He has created advertising in most media for every kind of brand and all sorts of companies, including Diageo, Kaiser Permanente, Molson Breweries, GM, and South China Morning Post Newspapers. Beaver Creek, one of the Vail Resorts brands, chose to follow him to Genesis from Grey. Work he originated as a copywriter or championed as a creative director has been recognized in awards shows in Los Angeles, Toronto, New York, London, Cannes, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Sydney and has been featured on America's Funniest Videos and Larry King Live.

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  • Tony Ripley

    If not for the lost bag, how would you have rated the experience?
    I am in agreement with you "pretty packages that are empty". Being forthright with the customer is important and can actually make a difficult experience better for everyone. The example I like to use is from the fast food world.
    Certainly we have all experienced entering a speedy-burger,seen people behind the counter, but never been acknowledged and dont know what is going on. I have walked out of places, with family in tow, when it SEEMS no one working there cares if we came in.
    Then, one day, we entered a place that looked like the same thing was happening as we got into a long line, when suddenly a shift leader stepped up to the counter and in a clear voice declared "we appreciate your patience, we are several crew members support tonight and will be with you as soon as we can." That was all it took to change everyone's mood. You could see it in everyone's faces. Now, instead of being impatient, all of the customers were supportive and a little more relaxed.

    It is amazing that a little communication can have such a big impact. I found myself now impressed with the improvisations and efforts being made on our behalf to get the orders fulfilled.

    Embrace the customer and let them know what is really going on. I am trying an approach with my website that presents the "business" face, that is somewhat personable, but then also maintaining a "behind the scenes" blog that speaks more directly to what I am trying to with the business and how I am making my decisions. Not everyone wants to know the details of course, but it is there for those who do want the be engaged with the process.