This is a bad story, but a really long time ago I read an article about a group of scientists and architects that tried to build a factory as efficient as a liver and failed. I don’t remember the details, but the reason for the failure is the liver is way more complicated and efficient than our dumb human brains can handle. Right now, those of us in digital, branding, and product design are the fumbling scientists trying, and failing, to build a liver factory.
The problem is brand. It used to be so easy and linear. Brand teams would lead the charge with the powerhouse of positioning, guidelines, and logo…but things changed along the way and now we’re saying that product is brand. Meanwhile digital, once a lowly deliverable, lets branding and product think they have the reigns but secretly know they are in charge. Sometimes that tension is great and creative sparks fly. Sometimes it just means three teams stare at each other across the table in a meeting for an hour eyeing the last doughnut.
The truth of it is, no one is in charge anymore. Brand used to always set pace and run rollcall but now all three can happen simultaneously. We can’t predict how and when a consumer will interact with product, brand, or digital. We’ve lost control. The ol’ “We’ll tell them what they want” worked great when we were talking to consumers on a couple of channels but we now live in a world where I can buy shoes from a retailer in the UK from the back of a cab in New York. There are too many options and ways to engage. There are no rules.
For instance, I run in Asics shoes. I like them. I like the arch support. They’re light enough. However, I’m not a hyper brand loyalist, I’d switch for the right fit. When I go for a run, I use the Nike + Run Club app. The UX/UI is good and it keeps track of my data well. However, if the app crashes on mile 4, I don’t care that it’s actually a development or tech problem, in my experience they have a brand problem. Why would I trust Nike’s shoes if they can’t get the app right? I experienced the brand, digital, and product all at once and I’m done. They can keep their swoosh shoes, Asics for life.
Those of us in digital, product, and brand must stop thinking top down and start thinking dynamic, non-linear, and most importantly all-inclusive because now services we use every day are being pulled into operating systems that are essentially unbranded. If I ask Alexa to play Doobie Brothers, does it matter if she plays it from Spotify or Amazon? If I pull up my Google Maps to call a car, why do I care if it is Uber or Lyft? I would only choose one over the if my experience of one either saved me money or made me feel more like me (…or aspirational me). If I can customize my Uber experience before my car arrives (Hall & Oates, medium full blast) or even something subtle, like preferring a tone the app makes when my car arrives, I may make a choice between seemingly identical options.
What we need is experiential designers, creative strategists above brand managers and creative directors who can look at digital, brand, business, and product as a whole and direct the experience from tip to tail. This is not a UX/UI designer, often touted as the next herd leader, rather we need people who can comprehend all the input from a cabinet of experts and synthesize the information into an actionable, strategic, full brand experience plan.
This team should be outside of the trenches and work iteratively, constantly absorbing feedback and making decisions that affect brand, digital, and product and have an acute awareness of how those decisions ripple out. Iterative is key here, not just during the design and development but after the product is launched as well. We are now creating experiences, not product or brand or digital, and users expect to be a part of the conversation. We’ve spent the last decade building platforms and teaching consumers how to interact with brands on social media and we need to organize our internal structures at agencies, firms, and brands to support what we worked so hard to create (and have the feedback and subsequent action go beyond the marketing team). We need a high level system that is efficient, communicates automatically, can work on the macro and micro scale and, well, can process a lot of shit. We need a liver factory.
Right now we can’t build these iterative, creative strategist teams because we work like Mad Men even though we live in a Jetson’s world. The kinds of people to fill these teams don’t exist in quantity yet because while people consume 360, we still work in a straight line. We should stop training everyone to do specialist jobs and start training some people how to think and work across a variety of channels and platforms. Yes, this is a call for generalists. I’m not arguing we should forgo specialists entirely, rather we should value and invest in the value of highly trained, strategic, experienced, and informed generalists. If a flexible brain is the future, we should build generalist teams that can absorb and incorporate new information into the experiential strategy at every step from brainstorm to, well, consumer tweetstorm. Even though we don’t have a lot of those people yet, we can start now. Teach digital designers to think like UX. Give a strategist Google Analytics training or Biz Dev a stylus. This requires a huge level of transparency and a major overhaul between how brands, digital, and product interact.
Think of it like a renaissance, we are in on the cultural bridge between where we were and where we are going. It’s exciting and ripe for artists and scientists and philosophers (or designers, developers, and strategists!). Much like the last renaissance, we cannot build and create for this new world with the same methods and information we used in the old. It’s unsustainable and, frankly, we will all fail. We live in a level of complexity that requires highly efficient and integrated teams of cross disciplinary thinkers.
The time to build a liver factory is now.
Mike Lee, Design Director at FOUR32C, is an award-winning interactive designer, New York City
FOUR32C is a New York City design firm. We’re curious digital natives who bring creativity and intelligence to the world’s most beloved brands. We create thoughtful, compelling interactive experiences by starting every project with questions. Our process leads to evocative digital products designed with a purpose for every pixel. For more information, visit us at www.four32c.com.
Mike Lee: interactive designer, New York
New York interactive agencies