The “importance of design” has become a topic of big business.
Specifically the value design adds to a business. Companies like Nike, Apple, and Target have embraced this new way of thinking, and have reaped massive rewards.
In an exercise of analyzing design impact Motiv Strategies and DMI created a Design Index, grouping together companies that had a design-centric philosophy.
How did the index perform vs the S&P 500?
From 2003 to 2013 companies grew an astonishing 299 percent, compared to 75 percent for the companies in the S&P 500.
With businesses shifting into the digital era this concept is increasingly important. The design-centric philosophy has a direct correlation to the success of your digital enterprise.
Regardless of what aspect your business has transformed digitally, those transformations necessitate the creation and adoption of digital interfaces.
The digital interface could be an API that exposes data and workflow interactions to developers and partners, it could mean internal software platforms that allow your employees to achieve greater levels of productivity and automation, and it could mean apps that your customers interact with to consume your product or service.
What is an interface?
Before we dig deeper, let’s first explore and agree to what the term interface really means. Interface is defined as “a point where two systems, subjects, organizations, etc., meet and interact.”
For me, this falls short.
In my mind it would be completed by adding “to achieve a particular goal.”
An interface is a point where two systems, subjects, or organizations meet and interact to achieve a particular goal.
This simple addition is vital, has broad implications, and is the concept that ties interfaces together with your business. The fact is, customers do not buy your product or service (herein I’ll use the term product to reference both), for the sake of the product itself, but to achieve some definite and specific goal that they have in their minds.
Typically the word interface is applied to digital systems, but that’s also narrow-minded. While we do want to apply it in this context, to truly understand its meaning we will turn to physical products for a moment.
Let’s think about a hammer. Its interface to you is its handle, and the interface of the hammer to the nail is its head. These are the points of interaction. In general you could say that you interface with a hammer to put a nail in the wall. Once you arrive at this level of abstraction, it’s easier to understand how else the concept can be applied. The question to you, as the maker of hammers, is not “how do I improve the hammer?” but “how do I improve the interface that allows me to put the nail in the wall?” What business are you in?
This line of thinking reminds me a lot of the many writings of Theodore Levitt and his assertion that most companies fail because they are not customer-centric. The reason companies fail, he argued, is not because the market is saturated but because management fails to understand its customer. They fail to understand what business they are in. They fail to be customer-oriented by instead being product-oriented.
One of Levitt’s most poignant examples is railroad companies. These companies did not stop growing because the need for passenger and freight transportation declined. In fact transportation needs only continued to grow but the need was quickly filled by others (planes and automobiles). The management within these companies failed to understand that their business was transportation, not railroads.
You must also consider the customer’s perspective on the relationship — between them, the owner of the problem, and you, the supplier of the solution. Relationships might seem like they are getting shorter, but in fact they are getting longer. Because products and interactions are more complicated and negotiating repeatedly is a hassle and costs too much, the value of a good relationship is greatly increased. On the other hand, the availability of information and disruption of industries makes “switching” seem a lot easier. An interesting dichotomy. But the solution is simple: continue being customer-centric, and be vigilant in maintaining the customer experience beyond sales and marketing.
What do customers have to do with interfaces?
Knowing that you have to be customer-centric and that your points of interaction with your customer are mostly, if not completely, becoming digital, only highlights the importance of understanding your customer relationships in the context of interfaces.
In today’s world the interaction between customer and vendor is ever more complex and interdependent. And it’s usually complemented (if not already completely replaced) by software. In such cases the software becomes the point of interaction (fully representing the brand across the entire experience), and thus the digital interface of your software is your company.
A good example of this is online banking. By now it has largely replaced most physical interactions within banks. If you’re like me you rarely ever go into a bank (especially now when you can take a picture of a cheque to deposit it!). As such, the online banking interface now represents most, if not all, of a bank customer’s interactions. Your entire experience with the brand is through their software. The relationship now succeeds, or fails, by the utility (usability) and experience (design) of the digital interface.
The new paradigm: Digital Interfaces
Your business exists to allow an individual or company to achieve a particular objective. Your points of interaction with your customers already involve one or many software interfaces. For some businesses, the path can be completely digital — from initial research, to transaction, to actual consumption, all done through a digital interface. This is why design is so important. Because good digital interfaces mean good experiences, and ultimately a much greater possibility of a successful relationship.
Having the point of interaction be an interface is also an incredible advantage. You can learn, adapt, and evolve incredibly quickly. Digital is malleable, universal and systematic. While in the old world you would have to take years to implement new training programs, hire new staff, and change processes to improve the customer experience at the bank, today you only have to update your software. Not a small effort, but as compared with before, a significantly less costly one.
Disruption is happening in every market, every industry, and with every consumer experience. If your business hasn’t yet been affected, it will, and probably within the next 5 years. Disruptors have changed the customer experience by prioritizing design, usability and simplicity to create new (software) platforms that fundamentally change the way customers interact to achieve their goals (remember the first iPhone?).
What is the interface of your product? How will you improve it to stay relevant to your customers?