The Brands That Got it Right

Topic: Insights

Flawless Function is Tomorrow’s Great User Experience
Sometimes the biggest upheavals come from the simplest places, like fixing an experience that everyone knows is broken.

The outcome of using a Nest thermostat isn’t really any different from that of thermostats from 50 years ago—despite its sleek, iPod-like appearance and array of sensors, the puck-shaped device is still just a way to control the temperature. Yet its intuitive interface and predictive algorithms have made it, along with Nest’s more recently launched smoke detector, design icons as well as commercial success stories. And they’re not alone. Next wave taxi service Uber, once the domain of tech-savvy San Franciscans, expanded in 2013 into dozens of new cities on three continents, showing urbanites everywhere that hailing a cab can be predictable, civil and comfortable. Even online travel booking has been undergoing a small revolution, with the continued success of Hipmunk, a website that’s been delighting savvy travelers with its comprehensible timeline-style search results, sorted by a “least agony” algorithm that puts travelers’ most desirable flights at the top.

Hipmunk, Uber and Nest are all relatively small companies that managed to shake up very large categories this year, not by introducing a completely new product or service, but by optimizing what was already there. That makes them prime examples of a trend that Ziba identified at the beginning of the year: Flawless Function is Tomorrow’s Great User Experience.

This insight came out of a series of discussions between Ziba’s researchers, analysts and creative directors, which ultimately resulted in an article on FastCoDesign, outlining 12 predictions about design in 2013. Looking back from the tail end of the year, we’ve been able to match up innovation success stories with most of them: the growth of Reddit as a credible information source, for example, bears out the Everyone is a Specialist insight, and the popularity of extreme obstacle runs like Tough Mudder and the Spartan Race reinforces the idea that The Mind is a Competitive Environment, where intentional suffering can co-exist with enjoyment.

There are also some important trends that we didn’t catch, or at least failed to grasp their full impact. The rise of micro-manufacturing and nearshoring, for example, has pushed consumer expectations for unique products to a surprising degree, whether in the hundreds of variations made possible by Nike’s Flyknit process, or the way Motorola and Google differentiated the Moto X smartphone by making it hyper-customizable, and assembling it in Texas, not China. There’s also the surprising counter-trend of people rebelling against all-in-one tech solutions. Single-purpose wearables like the Fitbit and Fuelband, for example, have earned far more consumer attention than smartphone-based fitness apps lately, while limited-access social networks like Snapchat, Tinder and Lulu are stealing some of our attention away from established players like Facebook. This caught a lot of observers, who expected more and more integrated technology, by surprise.

But many of the biggest innovation stories of 2013 aligned in one way or another with those 12 predictions, and it’s useful to see the sometimes surprising ways they played out. Here are a few of our favorites.

Brand Loyalty is How We Escape Decision Fatigue
Subscription services have been around forever, primarily for print and online publications, and less commonly for food, consumables and physical goods. One model that’s really blown up in 2013, though, is the brand-based product subscription service. Birchbox, and its sister site Glossybox, offer monthly deliveries of personal products (men’s grooming and women’s cosmetics, respectively), without specifying what the contents will be. takes the subscription concept a step further, offering quarterly deliveries of products, picked by a range of curators, including style expert Nina Garcia and Make Magazine founder Mark Frauenfelder, or brands like quirky LA-based Poketo.

What’s remarkable about these services is that they’ve convinced people to lay down serious money—sometimes several hundred dollars a year—for goods that someone else is choosing, which runs counter to the customer-is-in-control mantra we hear so often. The thrill of discovery is part of the appeal, of course, but there’s also the thrill of not having to decide: when you’re bogged down by decision fatigue, latching onto a person or brand whose choices you trust can feel like liberation. Even if you have no use for a box of candy-colored paper straws.

Repair and Repurpose are the Next Killer Apps
The Vamp is a device that resurrects dead speakers, which isn’t as strange as it sounds. Essentially a small, battery-powered amp with Bluetooth reception, the cube-shaped Vamp is designed to sit on top of an old speaker and feed it signals received from your smartphone or laptop. The Vamp’s Kickstarter video features its designer, London-based Paul Cocksedge, professing his love for old, boxy audio gear, and appealing to the hacker and tinker in us all, as well as that jolt of eco-satisfaction we all get when rescuing something from the garbage heap.
Vamp’s Kickstarter campaign has been an unqualified success, raising three times its initial funding goal, and earning extensive coverage in Wired, Core77 and other stalwarts of the design press. It also affirms the insight that an increasing number of people are embracing repair and repurposing, sometimes instead of purchasing new products. To a lesser degree, it also shows the lasting appeal of analog technology, even when it’s driven by digital media.

There’s also the peculiar modern/retro dichotomy that Vamp presents. It’s a totally modern product that relies on recent technologies like Bluetooth and USB charging, but it doesn’t work unless perched on top of another, older piece of technology — preferably one from the ‘70s or ‘80s. Given how comfortable consumers have gotten with supposedly conflicting preferences, though, this shouldn’t be surprising, and makes a strong case that The Mind is a Competitive Environment.

Technology Moves Too Fast to Care About
The Motorola/Google partnership that produced the Moto X smartphone is remarkable for several reasons, including its unique customization interface during ordering, its “always on” voice recognition, and the fact that it’s assembled in the US. But one of its most telling features is a thing it doesn’t have: an ultra-high-res display.

Just three years earlier, Apple wowed the technology world by doubling the resolution on the iPhone 4, calling the result “Retina display.” Digital cameras went through a similar process in the first decade of the century, with manufacturers racing to cram in more and more megapixels, leaving users bewildered and image sizes gargantuan. So when the Moto X was released with a resolution of “only” 1280 × 720 pixels, critics were quick to call it out as a liability when held up to higher-res competitors like the HTC One or Samsung’s Galaxy S4.

The critics may have been surprised that Moto X’s display didn’t seem to impact sales at all, or that when the iPhone 5 came out the following month, it had the same 1280 × 720 resolution. Moto X also drew heat for using dual core processors, dismissed by some as “last year’s technology”, yet reviewers have been quick to point out that actually using the smartphone is a revelation, not because it revs faster, but because so many of its interactive details have been thoughtfully improved. The Moto’s continued robust sales in the face of competition suggest that, for a growing number of consumers, GHz or dpi is like Aaliyah’s age: nothing but a number.

Narrative is a Delivery Vehicle for Making Ideas Stick
J. Crew and Domino’s Pizza may not share many obvious traits, but these two long-established brands have both reinvented themselves over the past couple of years, by infusing their service offerings with a healthy dose of narrative.

J. Crew has been around since the early ‘80s, but entered their current golden age by consciously rejecting the easy-access style that had pigeonholed them as a preppy version of Gap or Banana Republic. Instead of sensible cotton basics, they turned to more idiosyncratic and fashion-forward collections, and a new focus on personal service and relationships. A big part of that move was the Very Personal Stylist service, launched in late 2012, which uses in-store tablets to tell detailed video “stories” about various clothing articles to shoppers, and hooks them up with professionals who can put together an outfit or take care of holiday shopping—all free of charge.

We could soon see branded apps and websites moving away from just providing functionality, and toward telling richer, more personal narratives.

In a less elaborate way, Domino’s “Pizza Tracker” infuses the late-night pizza order with story and personality too. Besides letting customers place their order online, and create Pizza Profiles to shortcut the process, the Tracker graphically charts the progress of your order, tells you exactly what time it left the kitchen, and in some cases even gives you the name of the person who made it. The Tracker also opens up avenues for human interaction, encouraging customers to leave notes for the pizza makers, some of whom develop personal followings. This feeling of being able to chat with the kitchen staff and watch them work is part of the appeal of small, non-chain restaurants; Domino’s has managed to bring it into the most formulaic chain-store food experience imaginable.

In both cases, a formerly generic brand was able to differentiate itself by telling a story that emphasizes human interaction. J. Crew in particular, by tying the in-store digital experience to a living, breathing expert, has invested the moment of purchase decision with a level of empathy that no digital story can match—something we discuss in another insight, Human Interaction Has Never Been More Precious. The fact that both Domino’s and J. Crew did this through a digital medium suggests that we could soon see branded apps and websites moving away from just providing functionality, and toward telling richer, more personal narratives.

Empathy, Experience and Story
If there’s a thread that ties together these insights, it’s this: the triggers that make us care—about goods, services and brands—are shifting. It used to be that a successful brand conveyed authority and reliability (think General Motors or IBM); now it’s about empathy. Technology used to attract us through specs and features; today it has to enable an experience. Even our perception of what makes a product valuable has shifted, to the point where a brand-new sound system or a dress like the one on the magazine cover is actually less desirable than something with a strong story attached. That can take many forms: a revived speaker from the ‘80s, a box of mystery items curated by a favorite brand, or an outfit chosen with the help of a trusted expert. Increasingly, it’s these stories—coupled with basic functionality that’s absolutely dialed in—that win people over in the long run.

For a complete list of the 12 Insights Ziba presented in early 2013, see the article in FastCoDesign. More detailed explanations are in the Perspectives section of the Ziba website.

Art Credit: Bob Gallup, Matthew Baranauskas, Michael Etter

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