Have you ever met anyone who loves Facebook’s (FB) user interface? Or Craigslist’s? They’re functional, sure. But both could benefit from refinement, as the sites are probably aware: Facebook has more than a dozen open positions in its design and user experience department. Craigslist is also hiring developers with experience in user interface design.
It’s not surprising that Facebook and other popular sites look clunky. They’re just too new to this world to have mastered design. In every category of industry, form tends to follows function. When Henry Ford was around, cars were ugly, functional things. He is famous for having quipped that customers could have any color they wanted as long as it was black.
Since then, car design has come a long way. More recently, personal computers have gone from being bland and balky to fashionable and intuitive. Office furniture, running shoes, smartphones: Out of the gate, new products appeal based on what they do, but the key to longevity becomes how they do it.
Has your company figured out how form can augment function? It’s easy to limit your conception of communications to ads, news releases, websites, e-mails, trade shows, and the like. But there isn’t anything you do in the delivery of your product or service that doesn’t communicate something—intentionally or not. Any organization can improve its form factor, given the proper mindset.
The most important consideration is to ensure that the way you do what you do isn’t working against you. Your primary adversary is the mirror image of your company’s core competency—what you might call its evil twin. The first step is to quit being your own worst enemy.
If you run a law firm, for example, the last thing you want to be associated with is unprofessionalism. Are your attorneys hard to reach? Are your invoices confusing? Do your associates play a game of musical chairs on client accounts? None of these things may bear directly on the quality of your legal advice, but they sure sap confidence.
Or perhaps you’re in retail, where anything that makes it more difficult for people to buy is the enemy. That includes not only such obvious things as running out of inventory or being short-staffed. It includes disconcerting sensory signals like bad lighting, out-of-date décor, odd odors, too much noise (or perhaps too little), or a parking lot in need of striping.
You get the idea: Job one must be to stamp out anything that works against your brand during the customer experience. Once your defense is in place, you can start tossing the ball around on offense.
Examining the how, when, where, and why of your what should turn up dozens of ways to improve your form. Say you’re a restaurateur, for example. First, disarm your evil twin by eliminating anything that conveys bad taste, from dirty restrooms to surly staff to sticky menus. Then turn your attention to how you might use form to generate real business results.
Dessert is a source of under-tapped margin for most restaurants. It’s easy for customers to say no to the same old apple pie pitch, even if it is a generations-old family recipe. Vary the form of the dessert sales experience. Walk a piping hot, aromatic pie past the table at just the right time, offering bite sized portions instead of diet-buster slices, developing a tantalizing script to help the wait staff romance the sale—and watch the pie fly. The product itself might remain unchanged, but its form—the way it’s presented and positioned—can be continually renewed.
Here’s the point: Don’t get stuck in a “communications is a department” mindset. There’s nothing you do that isn’t sending a message, one way or another. Even if you’re the most industrial of industrial manufacturers, don’t ignore the power of aesthetics and ergonomics. All other things being equal, a pretty product beats an ugly one every time.
If you think form across the entire enterprise, you’ll continually find opportunities for improvement, often at little or no cost. They’ll help keep you ahead of the curve and in the black.