Author Chris Butler brings more than ten years of experience in design research to his role as director of Ziba’s Consumer Insights and Trends group.
Near the end of 2012, a group of us at Ziba got together to review what we’d learned over the course of the year. Working with dozens of clients who serve customers around the world, we designers spend a lot of time observing people as they interact with technology, services, and experiences, noticing how they seek solutions to everyday problems and make decisions. In the process, certain patterns emerge so forcefully that they’re practically unavoidable.
Meeting over three sessions spread out over a week, 23 Zibites (designers, researchers, and creative directors) discussed the patterns we’d seen, and distilled them down to the 12 insights we thought were most current and useful, to us and to our clients. Each one is presented here, as a brief essay that suggests how it will affect business practices in 2013, and as an illustration created by one of Ziba’s designers.
1. THE MIND IS A COMPETITIVE ENVIRONMENT.
Our understanding of how we decide has evolved dramatically over the past 20 years, and it paints a messy picture. Rather than logical conclusions based on clear needs and preferences, choices are often just the slim visible portion of a rowdy internal struggle, pitting conflicting ideas and beliefs against each other. Even our most certain conclusions turn out to be stories we create after the fact, convincing ourselves that we’ve preferred chocolate to vanilla all along.
Be okay with the chaos. The smartest organizations in 2013 will embrace this conflict, and acknowledge the complexity in their customers’ minds. This means services that let you be predictable one day and impulsive the next, and products that appeal to values that once seemed in tension: eco and luxury, traditional and playful, retro and hyper-modern.
2. CUSTOMER-FACING EMPLOYEES ARE YOUR BRAIN AND YOUR BACKBONE.
The crucial element in any customer experience is still people, no matter how much technology has transformed the landscape. The sales associate, the courier, the flight attendant, or the service agent–in many ways these are your most important, best-informed people. The larger an organization, the more it relies on the thousand tiny decisions its frontline employees make on a daily basis. And listening to their collective wisdom is more important than ever.
Listen, learn, and enable. Taking full advantage of that ground-level expertise means fostering better communication, and putting resources in the hands of those who face your customers. Technology in 2013 will focus on helping employees do more, more intelligently, and the wisest organizations will invest in this wholeheartedly.
3. ANALOG WILL NEVER GO AWAY.
Sales of LP records have quadrupled since 2007. It’s a powerful reminder that convenience isn’t the only thing people care about. Music, like video and telecommunications, reached a digital/analog split long ago, and digital won because it’s cheaper, faster, and more convenient. But analog persists, in part because of nostalgia but also because formats like film, print, and vinyl reflect the people and processes that made them, forming an emotional connection that digital can’t match.
Stop worrying about the contradictions. 2013 will not be the year that analog displaces digital, nor will any other year. But it will be the year when mainstream consumers start to embrace “outdated” technologies along with cutting-edge ones. A brand that can seamlessly straddle the divide makes far more sense to them.
4. WORTH IS DETERMINED BY PHILOSOPHY, NOT PRICE.
Premium pricing models and digital services are detaching the price of things from the cost of producing them. And while this gives companies more leeway in their business models, it raises a question: How do you determine a product’s intrinsic worth? Increasingly, it’s the idea behind the product and the philosophy of the brand that created it. If two competitors spend equal amounts on production, the one whose ideals resonate with the target market is the more valuable.
Your values are a competitive advantage. 2013 is when mainstream brands start asking serious questions about their philosophy and values. Knowing what you stand for and conveying that to the world is no longer an intellectual exercise for the touchy-feely fringes. It’s a necessity.
5. NARRATIVE IS A DELIVERY VEHICLE TO MAKE INFORMATION STICK.
More than just a means of entertaining ourselves, narrative is how we understand the world and make decisions. Each of us is the leading character in the stories we tell ourselves, and we use these as a framework for organizing the messages we receive. Narrative is also how we remember: A story out of chronological order is nearly impossible to remember, but information that has a beginning, a middle, and an end becomes something we can own, embrace, and share.
Start thinking in stories. 2013 is when brands start actively listening to their customers’ stories, and figuring out how they can play a supporting role. It’s also the year they begin to tell their own, linking together their most important messages to form a coherent, memorable whole.
6. REPAIR AND REPURPOSE ARE THE NEW KILLER APPS.
The typical early adopter cares about function and capability above all else. But what about the rest of us? As technology penetrates formerly closed markets around the world, the ability to fix and upgrade in the field is increasingly sought after. Even in tech-savvy urban centers, there’s a growing consumer subculture that sees hacking and repairing as an indicator of true ownership.
Show the tinkerers some love. The smartest technology companies in 2013 won’t make everything totally field serviceable, but they‘ll offer access to those who want it. Rather than just optimizing for speed, compactness or low-cost, they’ll offer products and services that invite users to actively maintain and modify, winning loyalty and love along the way.
7. TECHNOLOGY MOVES TOO FAST TO CARE ABOUT.
The 8 track, the CD, the Pentium chip, FireWire–people used to invest in products just to get their hands on these new technologies. They were a real differentiator, and a kind of magic. But it’s become too much, too fast. The Internet runs on an alphabet soup of languages and protocols, and only a slim population of early adopters counts pixels or processor speeds anymore. The rest of us just want to know what it’s like to use.
Talk about experiences, not features. Technology is there to enable an experience, and as long as it doesn’t get in the way, most consumers would rather not worry about it. The smartest brands in 2013 will follow suit, emphasizing the product or service, not the features that make it possible.
8. FLAWLESS FUNCTION IS TOMORROW’S GREAT USER EXPERIENCE.
Imagine if your washing machine gave you dirty clothes one time in five, or your alarm didn’t work on Tuesdays. You’d be indignant. Yet today’s tech-heavy gadgets and services can be that unreliable. Customers can handle a few kinks in new technology, but we expect that basic functions will be worked out. And despite the proliferation of features, more of us are realizing that what we really want is a phone that makes good calls, every single time.
Fill in the gaps. A few smart brands will seize on the opportunity to highlight reliability and function in 2013, and make it just as exciting as a new feature. Customers who want respite from the noise of newness are many and hungry for an elegant return to flawless basics.
9. BRAND LOYALTY IS HOW WE ESCAPE DECISION FATIGUE. Making choices is exhausting–mentally, emotionally, and even physically. With the proliferation of online services and globalizing markets, our options have multiplied rapidly, and it’s wearing us out. More than anything else, this is why we form brand loyalties. Once we believe that our values and choices align, we’re happy to leave choices to the brand that’s earned our trust, and shift some of the burden off our own shoulders.
Be trustworthy enough to take the load off. The brands that earn loyalty in 2013 are those that have earned it. By showing you’re aligned, and communicating in familiar language, you establish a trust that lets customers relax. “Go ahead,” you say, “we’ve got you covered.” If they can believe you, they’ll love you for it.
10. HUMAN INTERACTION HAS NEVER BEEN MORE PRECIOUS.
There’s almost no transaction that can’t be automated today, from buying groceries to learning about health issues. And customers are starting to resist. With many technological obstacles out of the way, we have the luxury of being picky about automation. Sometimes we embrace it–when, say, we check our banking balance online–as a way of shifting mundane tasks off people’s shoulders. And sometimes, we long for a living, breathing person.
Look for places to act more human. The most successful brands understand when customers need to be listened to or expect the nuanced expertise that only a person can provide. 2013 reverses the trend toward automated everything, as humanity becomes the crucial differentiator between a beloved brand and a commodity.
11. GEN Y IS CREATING ITS OWN SERVICE ECONOMY.
An entire generation of young people has access to something unprecedented in history: a complete ecosystem of services provided by people their own age. When a startup run by three recent college grads can take on a century-old multinational, it transforms markets. Sometimes this means an age group split, like AirBnb vs. VRBO, or Etsy vs. eBay. And sometimes it means a Gen Y company like Facebook can leverage its enthusiastic peer group, and then grow to rule the world.
Take younger competitors seriously, and learn from them. Gen Y is defined by optimism, social engagement, and digital fluency, and these are attributes that can attract older customers as well. The key is to act as an enabler, not a controller: Give them a flexible platform and they’ll not only give you their business, they’ll bring Mom and Dad along too.
12. EVERYONE IS A SPECIALIST.
Constant communication and social media are pushing us to show off our passion and specialized knowledge, as a way of standing out in the storm of mundane information that fills the air. Mom posts photos of Victorian furniture on Pinterest, while Dad’s Facebooking his latest cooking project, and your cousin tweets about nothing but Korean pop stars. We’ve always had these secret pools of expertise, but now they’ve got an outlet, and an appreciative audience.
You’re a specialist, too. Trying to be everything to everyone is a losing proposition. As customers embrace their connoisseurship, they seek out brands that match it. The success stories of 2013 are companies unafraid of putting a stake in the ground, to boldly indicate where their expertise and passion lie–and where they don’t.
A RECURRING THEME that connects these insights is tension–not in a negative or uncomfortable way, but a useful one that acknowledges the diversity of the modern marketplace, and the natural contradictions within individuals and organizations.
Brand philosophy and narrative are crucial to winning customer loyalty, but not at the expense of basic function. People want to develop expertise and take ownership of their technology, but they also crave the advice and attention of another human.
Far from being at odds, these insights emphasize the complexity that we live in and the diversity of our needs, and brands ignore that fact at their peril. That, at least, is an insight that isn’t changing anytime soon.