How’s your phone’s home screen these days? If you’re like most people, it’s edge to edge with apps to make your life more organized, your workout more optimized and your productivity hands-free. We’ve faced an onslaught of apps in recent years—some life-changing, some halfway useful and many that fail to live up to expectations.
One reason for so many digital fails is that continuous technological innovation has trained us, as consumers, to continually expect more and better. Every day brings new innovations, with apps from digitally native brands offering greater utility and sophistication than those from legacy companies. This forces the laggards to work harder and smarter, raises the bar for everyone and increases overall velocity.
The apps race has led to a change in scope: Where once organizations built programs to help us simplify and streamline what we do in our lives, now they’re introducing apps that interact with where we are, the concrete, physical spaces we inhabit—spaces such as our homes, malls, cruise ships, museums and stadiums. Increasingly, these place-based apps are being decoupled from the smartphones many of us consider to be our lifelines and showing up instead on watches, televisions and even mirrors.
We can see this shift from device to physical spaces in programs such as Global Entry, which once relied on fingerprint scans to allow travelers passage into the United States. Now it uses facial recognition based on the passport photos that U.S. Customs and Border Protection already has on file. We no longer need to present our fingers, a phone or even a passport to be recognized at the border.
Meanwhile, municipal governments are already using digital technologies to optimize traffic flow, parking and even garbage pickup. Major retailers have been strategically using and advancing these technologies for years, deploying apps and beacons to guide customers through their spaces, understand their preferences and assess their experiences for future improvements (with discounts and other incentives to stimulate adoption). These pioneers are helping change the market from the top down while further elevating our expectations of what a business should be able to do for us.
There’s no understating how profoundly the rapid improvement of products and services has shaped both our cultural experiences and expectations as consumers. For businesses, it’s become an imperative.
Not surprisingly, bringing this imperative forward into physical space-enabling technology isn’t easy. Today’s enabler apps haven’t evolved enough to truly understand and use the data that consumers are providing. Until they do, business leaders should consider which organizational levers they can adopt to promote the necessary, continuous improvement that will ensure their business’ growth while making certain human-centered design plays an integral part of their efforts.
Here are some operating principles our organization has found to be effective:
- Make authenticity a cultural imperative. Do a gut check: Why are you in business in the first place? Then think about your brand and what you want your brand experience to be. Does your organization’s culture support this mission? Are executives held accountable for experiences that matter not just to shareholders, but also to the humans in the real world who are having these experiences? If so, is your design approach serving this mission? Design can definitely change your business and serve as a powerful tool for growth. But it has to be rooted in authenticity—and that starts with leadership.
- Make empathy a business requirement. Once your organization is aligned culturally, approaching experience design with empathy and creativity—understanding what people need, then finding new ways to serve them—will be crucial to achieving your business goals. Working from this perspective may mean some discomfort early on as you get into the nitty-gritty of which parts of your business (and your leaders) aren’t demonstrating these qualities, thus holding your organization back. These are thorny conversations for any business unit to have, but getting a digital experience right starts with a hard look at how to best meet users’ needs. In the end, empathy is the most powerful competency that the modern brand can master.
- Changing the customer experience might mean changing business operations. The argument for creativity and humanity doesn’t stop with the customer experience—it encompasses the entire value chain. Operations, strategy, supply chain, customer service, vendors—they’re all key players in the customer’s physical and digital experiences. For the digital part to succeed (and cross over into the physical), the entire organization needs to be aligned from the start. To be sure this alignment is maintained, you’ll likely want to add new roles to tirelessly represent the users’ interests. This may lead to evolving your entire workforce.
These are early days in the convergence of digital and physical spaces, and crystal balls are still cloudy. But whatever comes next, one thing is certain: The more technology merges with (and affects) cultural experiences, the more people will expect from connected moments. It’s incumbent upon us, as business leaders and designers, to ensure these experiences are appropriately useful—and entirely human.