Designing Great Experiences in a Digital-First World

By Salvatore Ciolfi July 10, 2020

The Designing Great Experiences in a Digital-First World panel discussion, the latest in BrainStation’s Digital Leadership Event Series, took place on July 9th, and professionals around the world tuned in to discuss the way brands have adjusted their design strategies in 2020.  

You can watch the full panel discussion here:

The pace of digitization has sped up over the last few months, forcing entire industries to adopt new digital strategies. How have the world’s best brands, Designers, and digital product owners adjusted to an increasingly online-only world? 

Here are a few ways leading brands are designing great experiences in a digital-first world. 

Embrace Design Thinking

Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, some of the largest organizations in the United States saw the potential design had to spur innovation and drive growth. Capital One, for example, acquired Adaptive Path, a San Francisco-based design and user experience consultancy, in 2014. Since then, Capital One’s design team has grown to more than 500 Designers across the US, which changed the company’s approach and prepared it for the challenges of the last few months.

“Capital One’s commitment to design thinking, and how we approach a problem, benefits everyone – We all should be approaching problem-solving with open arms,” said Klaus Heesch, Director, Experience Design at Capital One, explaining that he and his team follow three key design principles, which have influenced the company as a whole. 

“Be helpful and human – listen to your users and lead with empathy. Be harmless – do no harm. How safe are we keeping them? We have to be fair and just, we can’t just be fair. And finally, have contextual awareness. We need to understand and articulate the thing we’re solving for, to the systems and people who support it,” he said.  

Shutterstock, a leading provider of stock photography, stock footage, stock music, is another example of a company that has doubled down on design as it grew, creating a culture of experimentation and innovation that is led by its Designers.

“We have an amazing UX team and they really just drive the conversation, from the tiniest spark of an idea to a full-fledged product that it ends up becoming. They’re curious, they’re talented, and great communicators, which from a director-level, makes it easy to support their ideas,”  said Erin Essex, Shutterstock’s Director of UX and Product Design.

“Shutterstock helps foster this culture of creating a safe space where we can really spitball ideas and ideate quickly. We really do that from the lens of what is helpful to the customers, what is achievable, and how can we push those boundaries,” she said.

Be Agile and Adaptable

Harvard Business Review studied large organizations during a downturn and found that 14 percent actually accelerated growth and increased profitability. The most successful companies shared a few common traits: 

  • They all looked for new opportunities, understanding that their core products and services may have changed
  • They developed strategies that could better serve their customers, knowing that their customers (and their behavior) may have changed
  • They invested in products and services that helped their best customers when they needed help

The New York Times, for example, recently pivoted its design roadmap to accelerate new features and projects, including expanding free access to high school students.

“We have an existing program with Verizon where students at Title 1 schools have free access to The Times and we thought, what if we could expand access? We had two weeks to completely launch something, so we reprioritized; We had more than 100 people come together across functions to work to double access to 14 million people,” said Tracie Lee, Product Design Director at The New York Times, adding that despite the urgency, a long-term lens is always required. 

“There was an immediate user need but it was also an opportunity to think about that relationship. Through user research we hear that people are exposed to The Times in school, so it’s a much longer game. It’s about that whole entire journey; a lifetime journey,” she said. 

Jason Mante, Founder and GM at Google’s Area 120, believes that to establish agility and adaptability, organizations need to cultivate an environment where change is not feared.

“[An essential skill set is] the ability to just change your mind and be okay and open with that. Be able to say ‘hey I’m changing my mind because I believe this new approach is going to better align with what we’re trying to do,’ Whether it’s the vision or the values that we’re trying to offer or not,” he said, adding that organizations can further facilitate adaptability by implementing structure and conventions. 

“Define and build out a shared language amongst you and the team. Spending time upfront to make sure that you’re not constantly having to clarify language can help with decision-making.”    

Listen to Your Users (and Follow the Data)

The brands that have best adapted to the “new normal” are those that have adopted a data-driven approach to design and product development. Shutterstock is a case in point.

“We saw customer behavior shifting to the pandemic, at first they were searching for the virus itself, and in a couple of weeks we saw it shift to zoom backgrounds and things like that, and now the topics have shifted to homeschooling, education, and remote learning. In looking at these trends … we were able to quickly ramp up groups of images that were related to these keyword searches,” said Essex, adding that Shutterstock has also used data to optimize web pages.

“Sometimes there’s those legacy things on the site and you think, ‘I don’t know if I want to fight for that right now,’ but it’s worth it. On native apps alone when we changed [the save] icon we saw an 86 percent increase in engagement,” she said, explaining that it’s always important to look outside the “standard” data channels.

“Consider data that might be overlooked, […] go after things that you otherwise might be scared to go after and look outside the norm.”

Mante urges caution, though, arguing that the relative ease of new digital products can sometimes muddy the waters. 

“I think the biggest challenge with these digital products is [that] because they’re so easily buildable there can be less care and and less commitment to clarity in it because it’s like ‘well we can fix it later,’” he said, adding that the key is always remembering who your products are for and why you’re creating them. 

“Focus on the value that you’re offering. If you are opening a product or a feature and that primary value offering that you guys care about as a company is not screaming at the customer, you messed up – somebody didn’t say no somewhere.”

Register now for the next BrainStation Digital Leadership Event.