Design's Critical Role in Customer Engagements

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So where does one begin to create enticing visuals? Clarity is key. First, the business needs to clarify its mission, what it stands for, its personality, its history, its function, and its ethos. Who is its target market? How does the company wish to be perceived? What makes it special? These items may seem obvious, but many executive teams cannot easily and succinctly communicate what makes them stand out.

"The design needs to be approachable," says Christopher Lehmann, executive director at Landor Associates, a branding company. Especially as more businesses are relying on technology to facilitate customer interactions, the interface must be easy to understand and use. Consequently, firms must exercise restraint when using color palettes, details, and typography.

Adding too many colors, for example, has a negative effect and ends up confusing the consumer. The colors must accurately reflect the purpose and tone of the business; for instance, black is typically associated with power and red with love and passion. Text is another item that must be used in moderation. Corporations need to keep their designs as simple as possible.


In the old days, a logo and a brand were synonymous, but increasingly, design plays a primary role in the products and customer interactions themselves. "What is now clear in the consumer technology space is that we instinctively know that we don't need more storage or speed because we don't have any real use for it," explained John Maeda, design partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, in a Forrester blog. "In the absence of the normal cues of 'better,' which used to be as simple as knowing the CPU's clock speed, or how much RAM it has, or how big a screen to pair with it, we now are choosing based upon something else: design."

The change is evident in the smartphone space. Samsung's Web page touts the Samsung Galaxy 6 device's edge lighting, curved screen, and clean design (Samsung's best design ever, according to CNET) before its technical features: 6 megapixel rear camera and wireless charging. A few technical specs (3 GB of RAM, 5 megapixel front camera, and 3.6 megapixel display) are at the bottom of the page, but the device's CPU speed, internal memory, and networking functions are available only if one clicks on a hyperlink.


Design's importance is seen in other areas—such as effective virtual displays. Google's search system is a good example. Ironically, the firm withstood traditional market pressure to create a compelling design. The old Google logo actually went against a few standard branding rules, according to Rachel Sprung, product marketing manager at HubSpot. Google used colors that seemed to clash, included a slight drop shadow, and employed a serif font, all logo no-no’s. At press tiime, Google had unveiled a new logo that uses a sans serif font but keeps the same color scheme.

While the logo broke design "rules," the interface plays into a broader view of customer interactions and conveys simplicity and an intuitive consumer experience. Competitors were pasting advertisements in, around, and seemingly through their search button. Google resisted that temptation and left its interface clean and clutter-free, one reason why it became the world’s most popular search engine.

E-commerce is another area where screen design, layout, and sequencing play important roles. "EBay's job is to figure out how to simplify the shopping experience," notes Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers' Maeda, who is chair of the eBay Design Advisory Board. "EBay Marketplaces has 145 million users and 650 million items for sale, coming from a broad spectrum of sellers. It's a unique challenge to make an ecosystem like that rational, sensible, and delightful."


Increasingly, visuals do not stand alone. They are living, breathing representations of the business and are woven into products, collateral materials, and, recently, even customer interactions. All of those items converge into the making of a brand. Consequently, even a simple visual display, such as a logo, needs to be flexible and play well across multiple touch points—mobile devices, PCs, videos, and locations (local, national, and global).

As a result, when creating strong brand images, vendors need to consider the big picture and how all of the smaller elements interact with one another. A good example is the talent agency Chokolate. Its entire system of collaterals revolves around the idea of chocolate; for example, business cards are wrapped in foil, leaving something memorable after each encounter.

Clever is a word often associated with the Pixar brand as well as its movies. A 1986 short film, Luxo, Jr., inspired the Pixar logo, which shows the lamp (Luxo, Jr.) as the I of Pixar. The animated version of the logo appears at the beginning and end of most Pixar movies and has become a staple adored by Pixar fans.

In addition, the logo helps to connect value to the enterprise. The business almost always includes an animated short at the beginning of each film, in effect turning the logo into a signature experience for customers: Come to a Pixar movie and experience a bonus animated short as well as a quality movie. Very effective marketing.

However, be careful not to overdo it when designing customer interfaces. Customers will appreciate a cute design element, but if it distracts them from their overall purpose—like paying a bill online—it can get old fast.

Design was once an item delegated to the marketing department. No more. Now, it plays a central role in companies' attempt to connect with and build up their customer base. Businesses understand that a picture can be worth a thousand words, but an experience can be worth thousands, and occasionally millions and even billions, of dollars. That's why they are investing time, effort, and money to create the next great compelling customer experience.

Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance writer who specializes in technology issues. He has been covering CRM issues for more than a decade, is based in Sudbury, Mass., and can be reached at paulkorzen@aol.com.

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