Filed under: Empathy
Happy New Year, everyone! In case you’ve lost track — I certainly have, and I run this place — this is Better Than New, a blog chronicling the shouts and murmurs of the innovation business at the intersection of culture, design and business. A number of other projects, including Cult of Mac and something top-secret, have taken my eyes askance, but I’m hoping to return to something like a regular posting schedule in the new year. I’ve even created an hour time slot on my Outlook Calendar for it. And now, the post!
Each New Year brings with it a seemingly endless stream of retrospectives. From the best movies and TV shows to the most loathsome human beings, every category of life in the last year is dissected and analyzed. In recent years, the latter variety of list has come to predominate. Filled with bile and cutting wit, such lists are often hilarious and downright mean ways to reflect on our wider culture.
This genre has become so popular over the past decade, in fact,t hat they have moved beyond the pages of obscure, cynical humor publications and into the mainstream press. Fortune, for example, created a list of the “101 Dumbest Moments in Business 2007,” which purports to help us remember the wild, wacky, and, well, dumb moments that helped define the business world last year. What the package actually manages to do is highlight the mindset that people in deep in the business world take when observing the wider culture in which they do business.
The list is fine when it aims directly at pressing issues of corporate malfeasance or downright boneheaded business decisions — Merrill Lynch’s entire last year, Eli Lilly marketing Prozac to dogs — but careens off the rails when asked to consider any issue that largely exists outside of the board room. Fortune, and by correlation its readers, is dangerously out of step with ordinary people. Take entry no. 9 on the list, which takes French newspaper Le Monde to task for praising Pixar’s Ratatouille as “one of the greatest gastronomic films in the history of cinema.”
Far from being an absurd assertion about a cartoon featuring a rat in a kitchen, Le Monde‘s effusive praise is pretty much right, from its expert depiction of life on a gourmet restaurant cooking team, the limited opportunities for women in the high-pressure food industry, and even the brilliantly rendered and joyless food critic Anton Ego. Not to mention the gorgeous dishes designed by French Laundry maestro Thomas Keller. From stem to stern, Ratatouille has made it cool to be a foodie. And it brought its parent company Disney $600 million in revenue. Millions of people obviously agree with Le Monde about the movie. Why doesn’t Fortune go find out why? People are not crazy. In their own minds, everything they do makes sense. But too often in a world that values rationality above all else (business), we dismiss the tastes and worldviews of everyday, average folks.
Evidence that Fortune editors are out of step with the bigger culture is evident in item 59, writing up Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” self-distributed, pay-what-you-like download model as a huge misstep. “Can’t wait for the follow-up album, ‘In Debt,'” the cynical headline writer reports. Har! The writer of the blurb note that 62 percent of downloaders paid nothing for “In Rainbows” while the remainder voluntarily paid an average of $6 for the collection. Radiohead could have made so much more if they had sold the album through its former label, EMI, right? Actually, no.
Most bands make less than $1 per album sold. Radiohead, even including those freeloaders, got paid an average of about $2.40 per album. If the band actually saw 1 million downloads, as rumored, they cleared well over $2 million in a single day, well over what equivalent sales would yield. Only through the eyes of someone solely focused on the health of corporations could “In Rainbows” be viewed as a failure. Yes, Radiohead’s decision meant that a ton of revenue destined for EMI didn’t go to anyone. But on a personal level, “In Rainbows” brought the members of Radiohead a huge amount of money, used nearly emissions-free online distribution, and also gave the band greater control than any major group in history. Fortune sarcastically referring to the next album, “In Debt” is so far off the mark I scarcely know how to respond. How could Radiohead go in debt? They distribution cost them a few thousand bucks in bandwidth costs, and they own their own studio. Going with a major label is far more likely to put you in debt, particularly when studio and promotion costs exceed the artist’s cut, as it often can.
I could go on, but I’ll stop there. This list is not, in and of itself, a crisis. But it if accurately reflects how acquainted most business people are with the wider culture, than we’re in for tough times. After all, how on earth do you know what people will want to buy if you can’t even figure out what they value or why they do the things that they do? It’s a signifier of a business world out of step with the rest of the world. Only by reconnecting to what people care about will companies of all kinds be able to sustain their growth. And that takes a dogged pursuit of empathy.
Phew. On the couch at my apartment, wiped out from the first full day of learning, thinking, and occasional (no, copious) partying at Connecting ’07, the IDSA/ICSID Congress in San Francisco.
Synthesizing such an absurdly large undertaking (there were literally up to 12 sessions running at a time this afternoon) is impossible, so I’m going to keep this post brief and point to my biggest takeaways.
- Great data visualization can show the world as it really is, not as we imagine it to be. Hans Rosling of Gapminder officially blew my mind this morning. Click through to do likewise.
- No one has good answers around sustainability. I attended multiple lectures today about using design to effect change around sustainability, and they all left me unsatisfied. Some were very materials- or efficiency-oriented, others were focused on depressing statistics, but no one offered real hope for change. Alex Steffen from WorldChanging was an incredibly inspirational speaker, but his presentation didn’t provide concrete direction for designers. Shared property business models work very well for certain kinds of goods — cars, videos, homes — and really poorly for others: computers, TVs, furniture. They aren’t everything. And he implied they were. I hope someone has something more actionable on sustainability to say this week.
- Students are awesome. I had the pleasure to meet a young man named Joshua from Auburn’s product design program. He was so inspired and excited by everything around him, and he was also incredibly professional and put-together. Reminds me that I need to up my own game sometimes.
- Design is not design strategy. It’s easy to believe, based on the current discourse, that design is a unified field that applies to everything from the very front end of exploration to the final look of packaging, the ad campaign, and logos. Having talked with a lot of other people at the conference, we come from very different places. They really value the final artifact and the aesthetics above almost all else, and I come from a position about growth and moving the needle for the business — through the products, services and businesses that it gets into, the platform strategy, the overall portfolio. Just interesting.
- Designers view intuition differently from anyone else. I was at a good presentation this afternoon from Susanne Gibbs Howard of IDEO. She’s an anthropologist, and shared some case studies about the companies current process, which began with a fairly familiar process of ethnographic research, but then took a very odd turn. Essentially, designers at IDEO have complained that doing Human-Centered Design impinges on their creativity. They would rather be designing. So she’s created a practice called “Sacrificial Concepts” to bring design back to the front end and then gather feedback from people out in the world based on those concepts. We work this way, too, though we call them Pre-emptive Solutions, and the point is to surface assumptions about the area we’re exploring and move past them, not to constrain the area being considered. This Sacrificial Concepts notion was described as adding intuition to Human-Centered Design. I have to say, if you think intuition isn’t critical to Human-Centered Design, you have little business doing it. Intuiting people’s needs and walking in their shoes to know what’s a good idea and a bad idea in their world? The essence of good design in this realm. Just because the artifact doesn’t necessarily just represent whatever seems like a good idea to a designer at the time doesn’t make it lacking in art.
Phew. I’m bushed. Good night, and I’ll be back tomorrow!
Filed under: Empathy
The sad fact is, “What about the people?” is the last question most businesses and investors ask themselves. What’s the margin? What’s the business model? How is this offering different? Who’s the management team? What are the benefit packages? But never, “How will we meet the needs of ordinary folks?”
This isn’t just a start-up issue. Tons of companies act completely agnostically of the effects they have on people. They’re not immoral, they’re amoral. They simply can’t make decisions for positive benefit consciously, because any kind of consideration for people, any empathy, was left out of the original mix.
If more companies spent less time worrying about themselves and more worrying about regular people, those businesses would do better and the world could be a better place. Yes, it’s a huge problem that SunRocket customers are getting left in the lurch here. It’s a bigger problem that credit card companies regularly manipulate payment dates to encourage people to miss a payment, incur a late fee and lose their advantageous interest rates. It’s a bigger problem still that billions of dollars get wasted each year to develop products that don’t have a reason to exist.
We need to rethink why companies exist. They are not just here to self-sustain and make money — they are here to meet the needs of the people who work for them and for the people who buy the stuff they make. If executive teams just ask themselves, again and again, “What about the people?”, the American economy would be in better shape – and America could, too.