Saturday, December 27, 2008

Book Summary: Making Meaning – How Successful Businesses Deliver Meaningful Experiences

Summary of book written By Steve Diller, Nathan Shedroff, Darrel Rhea

This book has valuable ideas regarding how to drive innovation in today’s experience economy. It was written by a group of experts from the field of experience design who have strong ties to Cheskin, a strategic design consulting and market research firm with a focus on helping companies to develop meaningful innovations. The concepts and framework presented here reflect the thinking and approach that were developed, and are currently used, at this leading design research firm.

Many of these ideas have been communicated via blogs and articles published over the past couple of years. The value of the book, in comparison to the content that you will find online and in magazines, is that it has enabled the authors to explore these ideas in greater depth. Here they are able to provide additional background and contextual information in defense of their perspectives, as well as a more in-depth description of the frameworks and methodologies they have developed to help their companies and clients succeed. At only 140 pages, this book is a fast and enjoyable read that is clear and easy to follow.

The guiding premise for this book is that “consumers increasingly make their purchasing decisions based on deeply valued meanings that companies evoke for them through their products and services… as opposed to simply responding based on features, price, brand identity, and emotional pitches.” In other words, we have entered an era of meaningful consumption. This new world is framed by the rise of globalization, the end of the mass market, and the empowerment of individuals. To succeed organizations can no longer innovate for the sake of novelty, they must focus their innovations on addressing the human need for meaning.

Once this initial premise is laid out, the authors shift their focus to mapping out the evolution of consumer demand in Western society. Next they define the concepts of experience and meaning, to provide a foundation for the second half of the book where they focus on the creation of meaningful experiences. During this section they explore how to find opportunities for meaning, and how to design and deliver meaningful experiences. Below I’ve included a more in-depth overview each of these sections.

Brief Evolution of Consumer Demand

From 1900 through the middle of the century most innovation was product-based, focused on price and feature improvements. With the rise of the assembly line and growth of distribution infrastructure, companies were able to produce products with new features (e.g. soap varieties, car colors, etc.) A “build it and they will come mentality” ruled the day.

In 1950 a brand-focused approach to innovation began to take hold. This shift in perspective became more prevalent as companies realized that serving a single market segment with specific needs and desires was a strategy for uccess. In this period the driving force of innovation evolved from product “features” to “benefits”, which can be physical, emotional, identity-focused or social.

More recently, as the branding has evolved to encompass all customer touch points, the focus of innovation has shifted to the creation of experiences. This brings us back to the premise of this book: to succeed in this market, organizations must base their innovations on delivering “meaning” rather than “benefits”.

Definition of Experience and Meaning

At the most basic level experience can be defined as a “sensation of change.” However, from a business and design perspective, “experience” refers to engagements that are created by consistent and coordinated systems of interactions, or “touch points’, that are designed to convey a specific brand characteristics or attributes.

The focus on creation of experiences “reflects a company’s effort to be consistent in its value proposition and its expression in every connection with a consumer.” That said, consistency is not sufficient to make an experience relevant, compelling, and valuable. Experiences must deliver meaning.

The definition of meaning used in this book refers to “connotation, worth, or import”. Here is a personal example: “going to music concerts is meaningful to me because it gives me a sense of beauty.” From this quote you can tell that I appreciate concerts because they inspire me by delivering pleasures to my senses.

Meaning is central to our experience of reality. It is created on a personal- and community-level and serves as the foundation for our understanding and actions. Going back to experiences, they enable companies to “evoke” meaning since they are not able to actually create meaning, which only arises in their customers’ minds.

Fifteen different “meanings” have been identified as being the most universally valued according to the fieldwork carried out by the authors. Here they are in alphabetical order: Accomplishment; Beauty; Creation; Community; Duty; Enlightenment; Freedom; Harmony; Justice; Oneness; Redemption; Security; Truth; Validation; Wonder.

The Starting Point

To deliver meaning, companies need to reverse their development process to start with an understanding of their customers, and what their customers’ find meaningful. The first steps on this path are for an organization to identify their innovation culture, and put together a team to drive change.

A company’s innovation culture ultimately drives its innovation process and rate of change. There are three different types of cultures explored in this book: Structured, Creative, and Dynamic.

Regardless of culture, companies need to leverage interdisciplinary teams to successfully create experiences that are meaningful “because [this] heightens the likelihood that all customer touch points of the experience will be cohesive and consistent.” Here is a list of the core participants that should be involved in innovation initiatives: Brand Management; Sales Management; Marketing Management and Research; Design; Development/Production; Information Technology; Human Resources; Operations; and CEOs. As with any team, a lead decision maker needs to be identified from one of these areas of expertise.

Design Principles and Process

To deliver meaningful experiences, companies need expand the role of design from viewing it as a function that is limited to visual representation and adornments to embracing it conceptually as a process across all disciplines.

The conceptual role design should play to drive the development of meaningful experiences should be driven by seven principles:
  1. Design creates corporate value
  2. Design is pervasive
  3. Design is collaborative
  4. Design includes execution
  5. Design is a transparent, knowable process
  6. Design is iterative
  7. Design includes both short-term and long-term goals.
These design principles reflect a philosophy that views design as a process that can be broken down into five distinct phases:
  1. Identifying the Opportunity for Meaning
  2. Framing the Experience
  3. Shaping the Concept
  4. Refining the Experience
  5. Expressing the Experience

The Process in More Detail

1) Identifying the Opportunity for Meaning: during this phase companies learn about the competitive landscape, market size, important trends and technologies, distribution channels, and customer lifestyles, preferences and needs. Key activities include defining the market and understanding the customer. Various types of primary and secondary research are needed to unearth these insights.

2) Framing the Experience: during this phase companies choose the audience segment on which to focus, identify the experiences they will create, and define the meaning the experience should deliver to customers (e.g. the scope of the experience) including articulating the value form functional, economic, emotional and identity perspectives. Key activities include choosing the experience and creating an experience framework to define the scope of the experience.

3) Shaping the Concept: during this phase companies think through all necessary elements that will enable them to deliver a consistent and meaningful experience and avoid the most common pitfalls, which include errors of omission and conflicts of interest. Key activities include defining the breadth of expression, duration of experience, and intensity of experience.
  • From a breadth perspective, companies need to identify which components to leverage (most common components include product, service, brand, channel, promotion, marketing communications, customer support, and alliances)
  • Companies then need to think through how these various components will be integrated during the various phases of the experience to deliver meaning: initiation, immersion, conclusion and continuation.
  • Next companies need to identify the intensity of the connection a consumer will have with the experience. There are three separate levels of intensity, from weakest to strongest, reflexive, habitual and engagement.
4) Refining the Experience: during this phase companies fine-tune the experience being created by customizing characteristics of interactivity such as user control, adaptability, feedback and communication; and by designing the triggers of the experience including language, symbols, and sensations. Key activities include exploration of interactivity and definition of aesthetic details.

5) Expressing the experience: during this final phase of the design process companies produce and deliver the experience. Unlike the linear processes associated to assembly-line businesses, experience-based companies are in a perpetual state of production and need to maintain the appropriate mindset to support this reality.

Relevant Links
Here are links to the websites and blogs from the authors from this book. I specifically want to highlight Nathan's website because it has a wealth of resources related to interaction and experience design including lists of books, articles, blogs and courses. I have used these resources extensively in developing my personal curriculum.

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