Products’ Friendly Front End
Strong design can lure people toward your company’s offerings, but make sure you have the fundamentals in place to support it. Dev Patnaik talks with Business Week about the importance of aligning front design solutions with back end systems and overall strategy.
Recently, Delta announced that it would shut down Song, its foray into the world of chic, low-cost carriers. Both Song and United’s TED were experiments to see whether major carriers could compete with the likes of Virgin and JetBlue (JBLU) on their own turf.
In both cases, the carriers attempted to use design as a major differentiator. United retained marquee-name agencies to help design and brand TED. For Song, Delta completely revamped its cabin interiors and partnered with designer Kate Spade to create stunning new crew uniforms. Delta even set up a pop-up store in New York’s SoHo to create buzz for the new brand. Yet, less than two years later, both TED and Song have wound up colossal failures.
It’s easy to infer from this that design has been over-hyped as a strategic business tool. But in fact, both Song and TED point to an underlying dynamic that companies need to understand to fully leverage the power of design. At its essence, design is most effective when it plays the role of a front end for a more comprehensive strategy and back-end system.
More than Just a Bottle
To better understand this relationship between strategy, systems, and front-end experience, it’s useful to look at a few instances where design has been successful. One recent success has been Target’s (TGT) Clear Rx prescription bottles. The centerpiece of Target’s strategy here is an innovative bottle that’s easy to read, store, and use.
But what’s sometimes overlooked are the other elements that had to be put in place for the bottles to be successful. To start with, Target realized that pharmacies drive sales in the rest of the store. Folks come in to pick up prescriptions and then spend a few moments browsing in other departments for things they might not have written on their shopping list.
Armed with this info, Target figured out how to drive demand. Like most pharmacies, one of the primary demand drivers at Target is prescription refills. Of course, folks only refill their prescriptions when they’ve gone through all of their pills — but just getting people to take their pills when they’re supposed to is a surprisingly hard thing to do. It’s what the pharmaceutical industry calls “compliance” (a detestable term if only for the Skinnerian lab-rat imagery that it conjures up). Target recognized that people might be more likely to take their medicines if the dosage instructions were easier to understand and remember.
Then, Target worked in conjunction with its pharmaceutical suppliers to develop a system that would accommodate the myriad varieties of medicines and prescription instructions that the average pharmacy has to deal with. Moreover, the information-technology infrastructure had to be modified to accommodate a new prescription system. Targeteers who worked on the project note that one of the most complicated aspects of the new system was refitting all of the store laser printers to accommodate the new labels.
Finally, the new bottles were implemented as a singular iconic artifact of Target’s pharmacy. New prescription bottles caught people’s eyes and even ended up on BusinessWeek Online (see “Design on Drugs”). But those beautiful bottles might not have seen the light of day without a lot of other factors coming together behind the scenes.
A Front End for Both Strategy and Systems
The Clear Rx program is fascinating because it’s a great example of how some of America’s most visionary companies are using design for maximum effect. Like Target, these outfits are identifying attractive new models to expand their business. They’re discovering the key factors that get people to buy more and setting up the partnerships, sourcing agreements, and infrastructure necessary to make the system work.
Then, with all that in place, these innovative companies are using design as a way to capture attention and inspire new behaviors — most often through an attractive new artifact with which ordinary people on the street can interact. Indeed, design is often most powerful when it serves as the “friendly front end” for a whole lot of significant changes in a company’s business systems.
Indeed, some companies, such as Virgin, have built their entire business around assembling the capabilities of upstream partners and then designing a front-end experience that’s well-differentiated. Without partners like Singapore Airlines, Greenwich Reinsurance, Sprint PCS, and Cott, the world might never have known Virgin Atlantic Airways, Virgin Insurance, Virgin Mobile, and Virgin Cola.
Failing to understand this dynamic, both United and Delta slavishly copied JetBlue’s hip aesthetic, oblivious to the fact that low fares and pretty logos aren’t enough. Indeed, underlying JetBlue’s wonderful experience is a meticulously constructed back-end operations system that was designed fresh from the ground up.
JetBlue founder David Neeleman shrewdly recruited execs from Virgin to help create a winning customer experience, but he matched that team with a cadre of Southwest Airlines (LUV) veterans who know how to run a low-cost carrier effectively. Those 40 channels of free cable TV on JetBlue might not be financially viable without the lower labor costs, low-maintenance planes, and point-to-point network that Neeleman’s team put in place from the get go.
Infrastructure Alone Won’t Do It, Either
Of course, the reverse is also true. A comprehensive back-end system can fail to live up to its promise without a compelling front-end design. Some companies invest a king’s ransom in back-end infrastructure. They develop a business model that seems sound and identify the demand drivers and alliances that will make the whole thing work. But then they fail to realize their dream because they lack the kind of compelling front end that great design can provide.
That’s where XM Satellite Radio (XMSR) has stumbled. None of the actual radios are anything to write home about. XM’s effort to emulate the iPod seems too complicated to attract anyone but technophiles. And most importantly, none of the devices seem to effectively highlight one of the most compelling aspects of XM’s back-end system — its strategic alliance with Major League Baseball. Given the amount of effort that XM has expended to sign a league-wide exclusive, you would think it would bring out a satellite-radio device designed to make baseball fans drool, but so far, nothing doing.
From pill bottles to music players to airlines, companies are beginning to use design for maximum effect. Often, those designs are a physical embodiment of more intangible business decisions. They allow end users to benefit from a web of alliances and partnerships, making an otherwise complex infrastructure simple and pleasurable to use. More and more, design is at its best when it acts as that kind of friendly front-end.
Recently, Waterloo (Ontario)-based Research In Motion (RIMM) has been the target of aggressive litigation. The plaintiffs allege that RIM violated several patents relating to the technology that helps its software navigate through corporate firewalls. And while many folks may not recognize Research In Motion, most of us are familiar with their e-mail device, the now ubiquitous BlackBerry.
As of this writing, it’s unclear whether RIM will prevail (or even if it should). Service providers may be required to cut off service, rendering thousands of BlackBerries useless. The prospect is ominous for anyone who depends on one for communicating on the road. But the situation highlights what’s most valuable about a great design — often, it’s the stuff we can’t see.