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As Consumers' Demands Change, Designers Are All in the Behavior Business

design intent Over the past few months, I've been busy riling up the design community with a theory that designers are now in the "behavior business," and I plan to explore this further in my posts in the coming weeks. Many of the challenges that businesses are facing cannot be addressed without a strategy for influencing consumer behavior in a positive and sustained manner, in areas like personal finance and preventative care. For example, I have spent significant time with head of disease management for a major U.S. insurance company who can't do his job, and manage the ballooning costs of chronic illnesses, if his members don't get their annual checkup (which is free BTW).

Even as behavior emerges as a central theme to many businesses, design is generally not at the top of the agenda. Yet times like these require creative thinking more than ever: if you feel that things are under control, then you are not moving fast enough. The design community needs to help businesses not just understand how we think, but how we fit in.

A colleague of mine offered the following thought: "The greater the gap between the current infrastructure of a given business or industry and the changing needs of its customers, the greater the value of design for that business."

Why is that? In the current environment most businesses cannot adapt their existing infrastructure rapidly enough to meet changing demands in the market-place. They are seeing rapid changes in consumer expectations that have the potential to open up new markets and opportunities if they can be translated into sustained behavior. But, instead of jumping ahead most companies are falling behind.

Consumer behavior in areas like health and prevention are a great example. Communities like Patientslikeme are becoming more and more sophisticated in how they coordinate and support collective behavior and shift consumer demand in ways that traditional provider networks can only dream of.

I recently sat down with a CMO of a major U.S. corporation who "gets it." He knows that his existing product planning process is overburdened by technical fears from years of battling with IT and engineering. They have spent a long time comparing themselves to their traditional competitors in the telecommunications space. They have been measuring their progress against one another while consumer expectations are rapidly changing based on experiences emerging from other places (not just Google).

In the past he might have considered championing an organizational change process, working with a typical management consultancy. But these processes can be equally slow and the results hard to measure internally—even more so in the marketplace. Consumers are not waiting for you to come up with a new plan.

Design Intent

Before you try and untangle these operational barriers, you might take a page from a number of successful businesses that have found increasingly sophisticated ways to engage directly with their customers. Companies like Zappos and Zipcar (what is it about Zs?) have found incredible ways to drive change from the outside in. They encourage their customers to lead them in new directions and then use that demand to pull the change through their operations and infrastructure. It can be eye-opening. These businesses have found that this dialogue is one of their most important assets. Be aware: creating this kind of dialogue is not a one-off investment but a sustained initiative. These companies have built a layer of "social infrastructure" that is essential to their success in the marketplace on an ongoing basis.

There are similar opportunities in so many markets. If you are a retailer like Best Buy that increasingly relies on consumer insights to drive innovations in white label products, then this layer of social infrastructure is essential to your success.

Your brand is built on trust and familiarity. Innovation is not just about putting the right new feature into a product and getting it on the shelf faster than the next guy. Innovation comes from an intense collaboration with your customers through which you can influence the behavior that will keep you (and your products and services) relevant for a long time.

Robert Fabricant is VP of Creative for frog design based in New York, where he leads multidisciplinary design teams for clients such as BBC, Comcast, GE, MTV, Nextel, and Nissan. He has developed user experiences for numerous digital platforms, including handheld devices, in-car information systems, medical devices, retail environments, networked applications, and desktop software.

Robert is a leader of frog's health-care expert group, a cross-disciplinary global team that works collectively to share best practices and build frog's health-care capabilities. An expert in design for social innovation, Robert recently led Project Masiluleke, an initiative that harnesses the power of mobile technology to combat the world's worst HIV and AIDS epidemic in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.

Robert is an adjunct professor at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts where he teaches a foundation course in Interaction Design. In 2009, he joined the faculty of the School of Visual Arts in New York and is a faculty member of the Pop!Tech Social Innovation Fellowship Program. A regular speaker at conferences and events, Robert recently gave a keynote speech at the 2009 IxDA Interaction Conference. He is a frequent contributor to a wide variety of publications, including I.D. Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and Wired.

Related: Re-Kindling Your Brand

Related: Welcoming Guest Blogger Robert Fabricant: Designing for the Unpredictable

Read more of Robert Fabricant's Design4Impact blog.