Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you don’t need to be told that we are living in a digital era. And if the devices that occupy our waking hours are any indication, there is no going back.
With few exceptions, when businesses today talk about breakthroughs, they’re referring to something that happens on a screen—whether it's a website, an app or some other type of content-delivery system. The incredible flexibility of digital platforms has made them indispensable. Digital is ‘easy’ in the sense that it allows designers and developers to quickly prototype many options, test the results with real users, refine the best ones, and then rapidly launch them into the marketplace, where they can be copied and distributed at virtually no cost.
Broadly speaking, this is the same process that designers have used to create products and services since the days of blueprints and slide rules, but the abundance of high-quality tools and templates makes the digital approach far more nimble. All of this speed and flexibility has given consumers an embarrassment of options: we can now take our pick from hundreds of thousands of satisfying digital experiences — many of which didn’t even exist last year.
My own background is deeply rooted in the physical world: I trained as an industrial designer, and for my company Ziba’s first decade, we designed manufactured products, almost exclusively. Yet today, like most people, I use my smartphone to share photos and I do my travel booking and holiday shopping on a laptop. These interactions make more sense on a digital platform, and I’m grateful that I no longer have to visit a travel agent or spend half an hour on the phone to buy an airline ticket.
But this long string of successes also has a downside. For many designers and consumers, a false sense of mastery has emerged, along with a tendency to think that any experience can be improved by adding a digital component. The truth is, not everything can be digital, and not everything should. A good user experience is still defined, in part, by the space you walk into, the object you hold in your hands and the person you talk to. Indeed, in many cases such analog elements of an experience are even more important than the digital aspects.
Portland-based clothing label Nau — known for its unique combination of technical utility, sleek tailoring and environmental sustainability — offers an example of what happens when you go too far down the digital road. When it first launched in 2007, the company — founded by a pair of former Nike designers — decided to sell its goods only two ways: through its website, and at a handful of ‘showrooms’, where customers could try on clothing but then had to wait for their garments to be shipped. The concept aimed to cut overhead and environmental impact by reducing inventory; but customers had other ideas: frustrated by the inability to take a new purchase home, they were less likely to make the decision to buy, and the young brand soon switched to a more traditional sales and distribution model.
Even in the 21st century, the shopping experience hinges on emotional factors as much as practical ones, and going into a store provides a sense of fulfillment that online can’t. Walking out of a store with a full shopping bag is a big part of that.
There are still hundreds of ways in which physical experiences have advantages over their digital counterparts: a digital e-card will never have the emotional impact of a carefully-chosen paper card that has been signed and sealed in an envelope — no matter how cleverly written or meticulously animated; and some of the most successful magazines and newspapers continue to thrive based on the quality of their paper reading experience. Even designers, so eager to embrace new technologies, still rely heavily on analog tools: pen and paper continue to be the most common way of exploring new ideas for consumer products, and automotive studios still carve nearly every new car concept from clay — at full scale — before translating it into a digital model.
The reason these tools and products persist is that we humans have evolved to gather information about the world through a variety of senses. For millennia, in addition to being very visual and intellectual, we have also relied on touch to understand what’s around us. We can ‘know’ things about a shape by touching it that no amount of visual examination can reveal. And the emotional cues we get by holding a card or book in our hands — running our fingers along its edges, feeling the texture of the paper — has no digital equivalent.
That’s why the smartest companies today are paying closer attention than ever to creating a balance between the digital and the physical. Where once we might have seen the entire market for consumer services as steadily marching from analog interactions to digital ones, many successful brands are stepping back into the real world and seeking a balance. They’ve realized that the best consumer experience is often neither digital or physical, but a carefully designed combination of the two that lets each medium shine.
Take movies. With the arrival of high-quality streaming media a few years ago (and the expansion of Netflix, in particular), many observers began to predict the death of the movie theater. Yet AMC has recently seen increased attendance numbers — not by dropping prices or adding screens, but by doubling-down on the experience. After $600 million of investment, many AMC theaters now boast luxury reclining seats and cocktail lounges. In some cases they will even deliver food right to your seat during the movie. The renovated theaters are reporting up to an 80 per cent jump in sales, even with home-streaming of media at an all-time high.
Here in Portland, theaters that serve food and beverages actually outnumber those that don’t, ranging from second-run ‘movie pubs’ to deluxe operations that can deliver a perfectly mixed Manhattan to your lounge chair while you watch Casablanca in high definition. Two local chains of the second type — Cinetopia and Living Room Theaters — have done so well that they’re exporting the concept to other US cities. Given the digital landscape, what these theaters did was unusual, but it arises from a fairly obvious question: what is it that people still value about going to the movies, beyond just consuming a piece of media?
It turns out that the movie-going experience still has plenty of components that don’t translate to digitization, and the feeling of lying back in a plush seat in a quiet, darkened room with excellent sound and image quality is a big part of it. So is the social aspect of ‘a night out on the town’, in the company of like-minded strangers. Rather than trying to outdo streaming media in selection or new content (always a losing proposition), AMC and others are elevating the non-digital parts of the experience.
Another example is GoPro, the iconic stand-alone video camera that’s become indelibly linked with outdoor activities, from surfing and snowboarding to playing in the park with your kids. Digital cameras were predicted to die off with the advent of high-quality cameras in mobile phones, yet GoPro’s numbers have risen right along with smartphone adoption. Part of their success is the result of some very smart marketing: the company makes sure that every recognizable extreme-sporting hero has been shot with their camera or seen using one. But a lot of its popularity also comes from physical aspects of the camera that are impossible to replicate.
The product ecosystem that GoPro has developed is exceptionally robust, and designed with a laser-like focus on the needs of its users. Besides coming in waterproof and shock-proof versions, the cameras also work with dozens of different mounts, so users can attach them to the nose of a surfboard or the dashboard of a car just as easily as to their helmet or chest. Each mount is designed for a specific use—the result of hundreds of hours of observation and testing—offering tremendous flexibility in video capture, but also signaling that these products are meant for rough use. The physical components of the GoPro experience are an integral part of that ritual for hundreds of thousands of people, and like the ritual of going shopping or going out to the movies, they provide a great source of emotional satisfaction.
The retail environment is one of the best places to watch smart physical and tactile design create connections with consumers in ways that digital can’t touch. Consider how many fashion, housewares and sports brands have doubled down on their in-store experience in recent years. Ikea’s online experience is fine, but the model rooms and apartments in its sprawling stores do far more to spark the imagination and build brand allegiance. Likewise, Niketown stores in major cities are so popular that they’ve become tourist destination unto themselves. Even Apple — a company built on digital experience — invests heavily in its brick-and-mortar stores, with unique visual design, a flawless service experience, and the highest sales per square foot of any retail space in the world.
Each of these is an example of a highly tactile, full sensory experience: Niketown encourages you to pick up the newest Flyknit shoe and feel how light it is; Ikea begs you to flop down on that sofa and put your feet up; Apple orients its iPads so that you must pick one up to examine it properly. In the process, you can’t help but notice how solidly it’s built, and how well considered it is in finish and detail. No amount of artful photography or thrilling ad copy can capture these experiences.
The lesson for consumer-facing businesses is clear, but also difficult to execute: making everything digital is a one-size-fits-all solution to the complex problem of customer engagement. Getting rid of digital, on the other hand, and going back to the days of handwritten ledgers and in-person booking, is absurd. The challenge is to match the tool with the task.
Digital is good at removing friction, providing a wealth of options, and granting immediate access. If I, as a consumer, have a specific task in mind that I want to complete, or a particular item I want to purchase, give me a digital solution. Make sure it’s optimized for visibility, allows me to easily compare options, remembers my preferences and previous behaviours, and above all, is fast and intuitive. Look to Amazon, Netflix, Pinterest and Zipcar for inspiration, as they are among the leading proponents of streamlined, satisfying digital interactions. Do everything you can to help me ‘skip to the end’ of the experience, and trust that there’s a huge emotional payoff in completing a task more easily than I ever thought possible.
Physical, on the other hand, is good at sparking emotions, building relationships and generating unexpected moments of delight. When I’m exploring new products or services, and I want to know what they’d be like as a part of my daily life, give me the chance to experience them in the real world. When something goes really wrong, make sure there’s a person there to solve the problem with empathy and personal expertise. When something great happens, celebrate with me, through a card, a phone call, or some other medium that bears a human touch. And when I’m looking to have an experience in the real world, don’t give me a digital substitute and pretend it’s the same thing.
This is one reason why small financial institutions like Coast Capital in Western Canada and Umpqua Bank in the Pacific Northwest have done so well in the face of multinational competition: by actively inviting people into their branches, they add a human element to the often-unnerving business of personal finance. This isn’t for everyone, but for depositors who want the reassurance of an expert advisor, it’s the kind of option that builds fervent brand loyalty.
As with so many aspects of the customer experience, designing for the digital realm requires a balance. All of the tools at our disposal — new platforms, languages, libraries and templates — have made it so that technical capability is no longer the great differentiator it once was. Any brand can now create a professional-looking site, app, online store, mobile service centre or dozens of other impressive things, with a minimum of effort. The question is not what can we digitize, but what should we, and why?
(Sohrab Vossoughi is founder, president and Chief Creative Officer of Ziba Design, based in Portland, Oregon. His clients include Adidas, Best Buy, Logitech and FedEx.)
[This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management]