3 Critical Lessons You Can Learn From the Big Boys (and One You Can’t)

This is part three of 13 in the Experience Design 101 series. For links to all the articles in this series click here.

Overheard in a parking lot, mother to thumb-sucking child: “Don’t you want to be a big boy?” “No, I want to stay little.”

That’s fine for the young sir at the mall, but most small-to-medium businesses don’t want to stay quite so little as they are. You may not want to become one of the really Big Boys, but you do envision a little annual growth for your firm. Take these lessons to heart and you’re on your way.

It’s no accident that several of these Big Boys actually rocketed to fame. The nine companies below have Visionary leadership, laserlike focus, and they create Maximum Customer Experience day in and day out through their Presence, smartly designed, and executed across all points of customer interaction.

Maximum Customer Experience brought them to and keeps them at the top of our minds when we need what they’ve got. Lots of companies are big, but only a few create the integrated experiences you can learn from if you want to grow up.

Lesson 1: Integrate Your Graphic Presence

Star teacher: amazon.com

Other mentors: FedEx, Nike

Oh, amazon, what can I say that has not already been said? Steve Krug admits to loving the company in his excellent book, Don’t Make Me Think. Their name hides the word “amaze” in plain sight. (Not to mention that “Amazon” itself conjures up images of adventure and immenseness, all within the pages of a book I may order today….) Their clean, simple logo, contains a smile. Many psychologists say it’s impossible not to smile back at a smile: does this include a smiling box, a smiling invoice, a smiling website? It must, because there’s chief genius Jeff Bezos, smiling his own iconic smile at their meteoric rise. Most people have never been to their headquarters, to see that as they’ve grown they’ve integrated True Positioning into their physical Presence as well.

Amazon teaches that graphic Presence can be a driving force for your business. Be simple, but not simplistic; be positive; be in tune with your customers, but stay true to your Vision.

What can the carriers formerly known as Federal Express teach you about your graphic presence? Clean graphic design is memorable. You may get bored, but with some gentle modernizing (the move to FedEx), your customers won’t. I’ll try not to get misty as I describe the arrow “hiding” in their redesigned logo (between the E and the x if you haven’t seen it); the name is speedier to say, and that subliminal arrow is there to remind you that you’re going forward when you choose them. Legendary logos are few and far between, however, so that is not the main lesson. FedEx carries their design through even the smallest elements. Their colors, their typeface, and their impeccable, timeless style is present from boxes to uniforms to website and everywhere in between. Once you have chosen your graphic elements, be relentless, and your firm will be remembered.

Whether it’s a t-shirt, a shoe, a box, an ad, or a spokesperson, Nike keeps their graphic Presence so tightly controlled that each visual element is unmistakably their own. Can Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan ever belong as completely to any other company? From their inspired naming, to the clean, postmodern swoosh that spawned a thousand imitators, to their utter simplicity of packaging and advertising, Nike’s lesson is of total focus.

Lesson 2: Integrate Your Interior Presence

Star teacher: Apple

Other mentors: Williams-Sonoma, L.L. Bean

With a true star like Apple it is hard to choose the key lesson. They are giants in graphic design for the masses, convincing everyone that their graphic world can be more beautiful, and strangely ushering in much of the worst graphics in history because of it. This has nothing to do with their own graphic presence, which is clean, focused, and tightly integrated with their endlessly innovative product designs. However, it is their relatively new foray into Apple retail stores which has the lessons smaller business owners can take the most from.

Apple took their established graphic Presence and translated it quite literally into the physical Presence of their stores. The result is seamless; a sleek Apple store visually reminds me of an Apple product; an Apple package reinforces the image; an Apple ad has the same spare, modern feel, and I’m right back to the store. The stores are clean, white galleries for technology as art and status symbol. Their layout funnels me through oohs and ahs to make my purchase (or willingly stand in a horribly long line to do so, their current downfall). Early adopters and the merely curious dive in to the stores to grab the latest gadget and are drawn in awe through Apple’s full product range.

Williams-Sonoma is another excellent example of integrated interior Presence. Through their classic colors and architecture, their subtle use of traffic flow, and their understated displays, the store still manages to make customers feel like they’ve made a discovery by shopping there, although the company is huge; their catalogues, packaging, and choice of product lines reinforce this feeling of an exclusive “find.”

Walk into an L.L. Bean and you’ve walked into a lifestyle. Like Apple, many people may be more familiar with them through other venues. That is what makes integration with their established Positioning so crucial, and their stores pull it off. I can feel the crunch of the leaves, hear the rush of a stream, and smell a hint that snow is on its way when I’m there, even in May. The feel is so complete that I long for a mountain hike—as soon as I’ve bought my boots and Penobscot Parka, of course.

Can you do this? Sure! Integrate, integrate, integrate. Know your Vision for your company backwards and forwards, and make sure all aspects of your Presence are designed to help your customer share your Vision. For smaller companies, your physical space can be the most remarkable part of your integrated Presence. When customers share your Vision, they become fiercely loyal fans.

Lesson 3: Integrate Your Interactive Experience

Star teacher: Target

Other mentors: Raymour & Flanigan, TGIFriday’s

This may be saving the best for last, in one sense. It is the hardest to execute but can be the least expensive, and is probably the most important. So much of this is under your control. There are plenty of ugly places I’m devoted to, plenty of places without even a website, nevermind a good one, that I wouldn’t consider straying from, plenty of places that ignore Mark Stevens and advertise all over without anyone ever noticing their poorly designed and non-compelling calls to action, places I’ve gone to for years and I’m not even sure if they have signage, but I’m sure it’s not memorable.

Why do we go to places like these? Because of their people. Take care of me, anticipate my needs, give me more than I expect so consistently that I expect it, and I’m yours. Not only that, I’ll rave to all my friends.

I could have mentioned Target in every lesson here, so carefully do they craft their Maximum Customer Experience. Incredible focus! Great graphics! Positive message! Cleanliness, lack of clutter, ease of traffic flow! The real standout lesson from Target is their ability to have crisply dressed, smiling, courteous (if not always knowledgeable) staff around every corner, in every store, in every region I’ve traveled to. So many other large companies (and small) should be emulating this example. That red shirt all over the store assures me that if I have a question, help is never far away. The stores are large and surely the influence of top management must be somewhat distant. Still, I have only occasionally noticed disinterest among the staff, and I have rarely had a bad experience dealing with a human being at Target. That’s a Vision being passed on through every level with great care.

Raymour & Flanigan is growing by leaps and bounds by tightly controlling the message and the messengers. Their very committed, well-dressed staff makes their middle-of-the-road furnishings seem like so much more. Staff is thoroughly trained in and inspired by Raymour & Flanigan’s Vision, and they impart their inspiration to the buyer with ease.

You go to a TGIFriday’s expecting a hip, fun, friendly evening, and for such a large chain, it’s rarely disappointing. So many great managers have said they hire for attitude, because the rest they can teach. It’s clear that Friday’s staff is selected in this way. Your server may not know all the answers, but they’ll cheerfully look into it if they don’t. One word for TGIFriday’s service, consistently in the many locations I’ve been to: engaging.

Some doubt that Experience Design can really influence human-to-human interactive experience, including Adam Greenfield in a superb article for Adobe: “… experience design’s Achilles heel is customer service. A combination of low wages, disinvestment in training and deeper cultural factors has left American businesses without a large pool of workers motivated to provide customer service at the level routinely specified by designers. The result is that experiences seamless on paper break down the moment a human being enters the loop…. Designers may well be able to specify the degree to which a seat reclines, the font in which a sign is set, or the sleek lines of a uniform—but not the behavior of the person in that uniform, and ultimately, that’s far more likely to determine the tenor of any experience.”

I must agree, in part. Designers… design. We will research, record, and recommend strategy for your human-to-human experiences. We can see the forest for the trees, and that is a necessary component of change in customer service. We often contract out execution (to a printer, to a carpenter, etc.), but in this case it is you, the business owner or manager, who are in control of the execution.

Star teacher Target, and mentors Raymour & Flanigan and TGIFriday’s (along with FedEx and amazon.com, in particular, of the other Big Boys), show that human interactions can be consistently stellar by simply paying attention to those factors that are out of your Experience Designer’s control: wages, training, and corporate culture.

The One Critical Lesson You Can’t Learn (Directly) From the Big Boys

Strategic research

Market and industry research is a closely guarded secret at these levels, but each of these firms is well-known to gather all the data they can about customer needs, wants, and trends, and about their industry and wider market issues. They obsessively learn what we want now, forsee needs we don’t even realize yet, and predict entire market swings to stay ahead of the curve. They innovate relentlessly and so, occasionally falter, but research even more after a slip to better capture our needs and our dreams the next time.

The key is not just gathering research but making use of it. If you are an amazon.com regular, you know that the smallest detail of your personal shopping experience is influencing the suggestions you’ll get the next time you’re there. At Target, the aggregate of all our shopping shapes their next season’s offerings; at Apple… Steve Jobs is more than just a Visionary with a divining rod trained on American culture. He has brilliant product development teams helping him appear to be the Wizard of our modern Oz.

Strategic research is the keystone without which all the Big Boys would be lost. Become a research hound, and you will be able to put all the pieces of your Presence together into the True Positioning that grows your firm.

That’s it: Develop your own critical eye. The next time you are dealing with one of the Big Boys (those I admire or your own list), look for the lessons you can scale to your own firm’s needs. From beginnings (often in garages…) to behemoths, their top people had a clear Vision, and communicated it clearly and with devotion to detail. Follow that lead, and you might be Big one day, too.

Grow and be well,

Kelly Erickson


Next up in the series: Part Four: Key concepts in Experience Design

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