What Design Taught Me About Digital Advertising

User-CentricMy name is Carl and I used to work in design. Specifically, I worked for Philips Design for nearly five years in Singapore with a couple of short stints in Amsterdam and Eindhoven.

It’s easy to mock design and the industry frequently finds itself the subject of parody. We’re all familiar with the turtleneck sweaters and thick black-rimmed glasses, the ones who look a lot like advertising creative directors or the hipster-types and those with a pair of sneakers paired with a linen suit.

The industry probably gets more than its fair share. Some of it is justified because there’re some characters lurking in design that don’t seem to be able to offer much beyond their quirky dress habits and a hugely inflated sense of self importance. But look beyond the squirming oversized egos and there’s an awful lot of great processes, ways of working and approaches to thinking from which any business would benefit.

In the first of a three-part series, I’m going to talk about Design Thinking and focus on one of its three central tenets – customer-centricity.

Design Thinking is a concept or approach that has been popularized over the last few years by people like Tim Brown of Ideo and is described on Wikipedia as, design thinking is generally considered the ability to combine empathy for the context of a problem, creativity in the generation of insights and solutions, and rationality to analyze and fit solutions to the context.

It can seem obvious to talk about the importance of understanding the customer when designing a product/service or when looking to engage an audience with an idea/communication. Many companies and marketers do but normally in a very cursory way – a way where most of the understanding is concentrated around a demographic or process driven perspective.

It’s been interesting for me to ask companies over the past few years what they know about their customers. The answers are invariably very similar and take the form of percentage splits by gender, age group, and location.

“Oh, I know a lot: 37 percent are male, 35 percent live in Thailand, 22 percent are in this income bracket etc.”

They’re almost always the same answer and almost always about demographics. And these execs think the data gives them enough to connect well with their customers. They may also talk about a process – we need to provide them this, this, and this. By thinking about the thing they want to give their customers, they’ve failed to dig deeper into the underlying needs.

A friend who works for Ideo recently talked about how he comes into contact with many advertising companies and finds he can really relate to some of the strategic planners. That doesn’t surprise me as I find myself regularly engaged with my planning colleague, passionately vocalizing on subjects, ways of approach and practices that I was very exposed to during my design days.

Only yesterday we talked about Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus notion and how customers’ behavior is proportional to their motivation. (It’s a lot more involved than that but let’s leave it there for now). If we think back to our typical business’ idea of understanding customers through their (almost exclusively) demographic data, whilst allowing business to conveniently compartmentalize and segment their customers, in reality it reveals very little about the customers’ motivation.

Knowing customers is more important now than it’s ever been. To speak about the ubiquitous Internet and always online consumer in terms of convenience and amount of time people can now be online is to fail to understand the reality of what we now face.

Conversations in advertising years ago were largely limited to the post purchase phase and generating brand awareness and consideration, we now live in times where we’re able to touch our consumers constantly – before, during, and after purchase. And then again – before, during and after. We need to always consider their motivations as they move through the brand engagement cycle.

Not only are we now potentially with them ALL the time we’re with them everywhere they go.

When marketers tell me the demographics details about the customer base I tell them it’s not enough. “Tell me who these people really are. How do they get to work? What keeps them up at night? How do they want to be perceived?” And then, when they might think about buying our product. “What questions do they have about the product or service? What might stop them buying? What worries them?”

Knowing all this allows us to create our opportunities. We can’t (generally) do much about motivation. We just need to understand as much as we can about it – where it happens, why it happens, what can stop it etc. Understanding this means we can look at all the possibilities digital now offers us and deliver appropriate and relevant engagement channels based on a real understanding of people – not just about what they want or what might turn them on but in tune with where they’re in the buying cycle and whether they’re sat on a train, stuck in traffic or at home lying on the sofa with an iPad.

Every company thinks they need a website. But understanding where your website might sit in the customers’ journey is key in determining its content and architecture. I remember a chap told me he visited the local bus company website and been able to read all about the senior management but unable to find anything that would help him know if he could make a particular journey using one of their buses. It’s way too easy for companies to think they know what stuff to push to their customers. Asking them to take a couple of hours to imagine the needs and motivation of those visiting their website and asking them to think “why” and “when” might make for a different result – bus info, for example, rather than senior management bios.

When you really know your customers, you can be more intimate with them and they begin to recognize and appreciate your understanding. They’ll invite you in because you’re relevant and interesting – a bit like a good friend. As with our own motivation, there’re limits to how many messages and communications I will let in. You need to be relevant to be in my attention stream.

Just think of a Facebook wall – it’s a beautiful virtual manifestation of a stream that people let in to their consideration. If you’re not relevant or meaningful because you fail to understand the nuances of your customer’s motivation at that point you’ll (in the case of the Facebook wall almost literally) be switched off.

And you’ll need to know more about them than just their age and gender.

I’ll be discussing the other two central tenets of Design Thinking: “the appropriate use of technology” and “business objectives consideration” in my upcoming columns.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.