Why human centred design is the enemy of original brands

Thinkerbell's Adam Ferrier considers why sleek, slick design thinking might cause your brand to slip right out of your customer's mind.

There are three fads happening at the big end of marketing.

First, changing one’s title from chief marketing officer, to chief customer officer.

Second, using rhetoric around ‘humanising’ business, humanising data, humanising finance, telecommunications, energy and anything else. The fact we’re doing it through robots and AI seems problematic to me.

And third, talking human centred design, and its short-hand cousin ‘design thinking’. Design thinking also has more associated buzzwords CX, UX, usability testing, experience mapping and a whole lot of other wishy-washy terms.

All of these trends roughly translate to the idea that you should put the consumer at the centre of your design/ innovation/ communications.

Now thinking about the consumer is not a new thought in marketing – we’ve always tried to match something they want with something we sell – but this renewed focus on designing around the consumer, and being able to measure every blink, finger movement and fart they expend whilst consuming our brands is getting a little out of hand.

Let’s imagine all of these blinks, finger movements and farts are captured in ‘design thinking’ and captured on an experience map. Customer experience mapping is a relatively new big thing, and the experience maps I’ve seen are invariably over-confabulated, complex, and completely non-operational. Worse still, this type of thinking is possibly starting to damage brands and business. Let me explain…

Imagine you are the CMO (sorry, chief customer officer) for a cereal company, and you have an experience designer / human centered design operative / empathy officer (whatever they want to call themselves) do some design thinking and map the customer experience for your cereal.

The map will look something like this.

  1. People will wake up hungry,
  2. have time pressures as they prepare something,
  3. balancing the needs to be heathy with something that tastes good,
  4. eat and enjoy it in a rush,
  5. they will feel satiated afterwards

Good money will be poured pawing over the intricacies of this map but that’s pretty much what you’re going to get.

The issue is, nearly all cereal brands will produce the same map as brands are much more similar than they are different.

The insights from the above map will lead to innovations and communications that:

  • Encourages easy to prepare cereals
  • and cereals that balance taste and health
  • and cereals that are easy to eat
  • and cereals you can eat on the go

Now look at the cereal aisle of any supermarket – this is what they all offer – and they would all have the same customer experience map.

My real dislike of human centred design is that it has a fundamental ‘regression towards the mean’ mentality. In this case the mean – the average, is the category. Human drivers are at a category level first, brand level second – and that’s where the insights will come from – the category not the brand.

Therefore, any activation, communications, or innovation based off the insights from this consumer first perspective will invariably be at a category level, and we will see brands start to look more and more alike.

Imagine, for example, human centred design examined my favourite cereal Weet-Bix – four clunky bricks of Weet. They are invariably too dry at the start, and too soggy at the end, and they are too big for a mouthful and need to be cut in half with a spoon. Even after doing this for 40 odd years, it’s a process that will still occasionally result in milk being forced out of the bowl and onto my lap.

Design thinking would make them smaller sized, easier to eat and more similar to everyone else. Design thinking would:

  • Do usability on Twitter and see that users want more characters and allow Twitter to double the tweet length, even though the very proposition of Twitter is short messages
  • See consumers think test cricket is boring and make it shorter, but in the process, make it more like other forms of cricket, and more like other sports in general – killing the brand of test cricket
  • Identify JB HiFi aisles are so skinny people can’t get past someone without having an embarrassing Harvey Weinstein moment. But it’s their brand experience to have skinny aisles – they scream cheap (effectively)

Even more relevant to most marketers, we see human centred design taking over the worlds of telecommunications, insurance, energy, finance and other complex and large industries. ‘Transformation via a better understanding of the customer experience’ is short-hand for the approach many see as making brands even more generic. How does design thinking get different results for every telco? It doesn’t, the insights are transferable (as they are at a category level), and if actioned will make each telco more similar than different.

As research for this, I spoke to a few ‘design thinkers’ and asked them what’s their north star, what guides their recommendations. Their unified response ‘the customer, it must be the customer – what they want and need’.

But this just means what the customer wants from one player in a category is the same as any other brand. Experience design invariably means all competitors in a category become more similar as the consumer wants the same thing from the category.

And what is it consumers say they want – it’s invariably a more seamless experience. One that minimises frustrations – ‘frictionless delivery’ I think the term is.

However, take this to the limit and you end up where Malcolm Gladwell once told me: “If you asked the consumer what they really wanted, they’d tell you ‘I just want to be left alone’”. Where’s the business model in not being there at all? If a brand is used in a frictionless way it becomes like Teflon, sliding in and out of consciousness – none of us want to create Teflon brands?

Look at any ‘design thinking’ process (empathy, stimulation, prototyping etc). The word ‘brand’ doesn’t even appear on the design thinking template. And brand is the most valuable asset in your business.

In short, human centred design misses the mark. It creates homogenised brands, and makes those brands being seamless, and frictionless and devoid of meaning, or value.

So, what’s the alternative?

Focus on your brand.

In the last six months, I’ve seen a dozen experience maps but very few buttoned-down brand positioning documents, understood and bought into by the whole organisation.

Forget about the customer (just for a little while), and instead really understand your brand. Brand is after all far and away the most important and valuable asset on P&L. Let your brand be your north star:

  • Let Twitter be to short
  • Let test cricket be too long
  • Let JB Hifi isles be too skinny
  • And let Weet-Bix be forever difficult to eat, for these are the very attributes that make these brands strong

If I was harsh I’d suggest human centred design is a mask for people forgetting (or not knowing in the first place) how to build brands. Every opportunity to communicate the brand and what it stands for should be a priority. For anyone doing experience design – the brand, not the customer needs to be the north star.

Brands are why we are in business – strong ones guide, not follow.

And finally, if your job means you’re in charge of a brand then perhaps consider the title ‘chief brand officer’.

Adam Ferrier is co-founder of communications agency Thinkerbell. The above was based on an argument made at the annual ADMA Great Debate arguing in the affirmative that ‘Design Thinking is Dead’.


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