Design's Critical Role in Customer Engagements

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The cliché "a picture is worth a thousand words" certainly holds up in marketing. With the number of customer touch points, as well as the volume of interactions, increasing dramatically, businesses must search for ways to distinguish themselves in easy and effective ways—and the overall look of their brands is a logical place to start. "We are seeing a growing awareness in corporations about the importance of presenting themselves positively and in a visually stimulating way to customers," says Julie Mitchell, a partner at Parcel Design, a brand design firm.

Traditionally, a company's design department was focused on the logo, but design's mission is being broadened to encompass much more. Product design has become a key differentiator in markets such as smartphones. In areas such as e-commerce, system design (how information is presented to customers) has become paramount.

While enterprises strive to create effective designs, many of them (both established conglomerates and start-ups) fail to do so. The goals are easy to discern, but the process itself is strewn with potential pitfalls. An effective design must help deliver positive customer experiences in increasingly complex markets. The necessary commitment from management may be lacking, the messaging may be inconsistent, designs might not be able to keep pace with an evolving market, and some approaches simply miss the mark. But corporations that navigate the choppy waters successfully find that compelling designs are a linchpin in the success of their business.


As organizations deliver products and services, they try to build a brand, which is more than a logo, the company name, or a product or a service sold. Branding clearly distinguishes a business from its competitors in the minds of consumers. The brand is the relationship between the vendor and the consumer, and it touches upon marketing, sales, billing, product delivery, and customer services. A brand is the promise, the personality of the firm, and the real and perceived value of its products or services as viewed by the customer. In essence, the brand is a gut feeling consumers (current customers as well as potential ones) have about the enterprise. Brands present positive, negative, or mixed connotations.

And the connection is based more on emotional reactions by people than numeric relationships in spreadsheets. Consumers are feeling creatures and develop attachments with brands. For instance, some people love Coke. By itself, a low-priced product will not create a loyal customer base; the business has to build a level of intimacy and trust with the consumer. A good designer takes the supplier's values and assets and transforms them into a product or a customer experience that is valuable to people.

As a result, design needs to be strategic and part of management thinking from the onset. Designs cannot be an afterthought or superficial trappings, cobbled onto finished products. "Design used to be something done just in the marketing department, but that is no longer the case; it is a board-level concern," says Parcel Design's Mitchell.

The emergence of the title "chief design officer" (CDO), a top manager responsible for design throughout the organization, underscores the change. Increasingly, design is being baked into every aspect of corporate operations. Smartphones such as Apple's iPhone offer a "cool" factor that wows customers and differentiates them from competitors; Web sites need to move the visitor from place to place in an intuitive, helpful manner. The CDO is responsible for creating well-designed products, presentations, and services that captivate consumers’ attention. Businesses as varied as Apple, Johnson & Johnson, PepsiCo, Philips Electronics, and Samsung have embraced this notion and moved design decision making up the corporate ladder.


Quality design may sound easy in theory, but it is difficult to deliver in practice. One issue is creating consensus. Different groups within a firm have various views of the enterprise, its products, and its customers. With so many cooks, vantage points, and ideas, reaching a consensus becomes challenging. In some cases, a hodgepodge design emerges that stitches everyone's distinct ideas together into a "Frankenbrand" monstrosity, according to Tara Hornor, senior editor and content planner at Creative Content Experts.

In addition, today's markets are quite crowded. The Internet has given small companies the kind of access to potential customers that large firms have traditionally owned. In such a climate, businesses looking to improve their customer experiences need to create something that facilitates a desired outcome quickly and in the right way.

Success can be fleeting because designs have a shelf life. "Companies no longer need to look authoritative, so they are dabbling with colors other than blue," says Parcel Design's Mitchell. If the business has prospered for many years, its visuals may start to look dated and old-fashioned. Today, the churn from cool to passé is quicker than ever before. If a business gloms on to what is trending right now, the design may become outdated later that day.

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