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The Consumer Electronics Show--Style Over Experience?

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on January 4, 2008

It’s great to see The Wall Street Journal wake up to design and innovation, but the recent story on the CES celebrates the most basic kind of design—style—and fails to understand the need for deep consumer experience. You come away thinking, ooh, Dell and other PC makers are finally discovering color and cool form and that’s the key to succeeding with consumers.

There’s no doubt that color is important to people, especially as they carry screens around with them all the time. The Great Shift of computer from office PC to personal laptop means personalizing the product and that definitely means color, as well as texture, weight and all the factors that go into “look and feel”.

But suggesting that computer makers are only or mostly focussing on style to appeal to consumers is an error. I know the design managers at Dell and HP and they are totally into authentic consumer experiences. They get the need to build broad ecosystems that engage people in many ways and take them on a journey that pulls them back again and again. This kind of design goes way beyond color and fit and finish to a seamless interaction between customer and company. This kind of design depends on a deep, deep understanding of the individual company’s particular customer culture(s). It’s about connecting on an emotional level.

In the end, it’s about designing a relationship, not a product. In fact, that’s what a brand is today, a relationship. Create a great one, and not only will they come, they’ll stay.

Whoa. RitaSue Siegel just sent a comment reminding me that BW’s story foreshadowing the CES show does pretty much the same thing as the WSJ—focus on style. There’s a box that says “Design is a big factor behind Apple’s rising market share and juicy margins. No wonder the industry is starting to focus on style.”

Thanks RitaSue. I didn’t edit this piece and the same criticisms I made on the WSJ story apply here. And any CEO who thinks that Apple is successful simply because of style is destined to fail.

Reader Comments

RitaSue Siegel

January 4, 2008 7:57 PM

I had a simliar reaction to the 14 Jan BW story: That Computer is So You. p 024. Don't the authors Steve Hamm and Jay Greene pay attention to your blog and other BW Design and Innovation stories? They also overlooked an important reason why the original VAIO was so successful: its 3.2 lb weight.

Gong Szeto

January 4, 2008 9:51 PM

what is an "authentic consumer experience"?

what is this "journey" you are talking about?

since when is style unemotional?

what type of "relationship" do consumers form with brands? what if i just want a red laptop? what if i am just a superficial style-slut? does that make me any less a consumer?

these phrases sound so "marketingese". I am a consumer, it's my dollar, i want to know that you are not simply prescribing new ways for me to be manipulated and buy more of their goods because i already "experience" over 5,000 corporate media messages a day and it's already pretty creepy.


January 5, 2008 3:06 PM

When I first read that piece in the Journal, especially the claptrap about pink, I couldn't help but be reminded of the old Volvo commercial about the Detroit automakers trying to appeal to women by introducing the newest thing in cars: Pink. Yikes. How short a distance we've come. Color's nice as a personal statement. Design is about joy of deliverance.

Oh, and Gong, find an Apple Store. Leave your expectations at the curb and just gon in and hang out for while. Soak up the experience, the vibe, the dialogue you overhear, register the glee. Then go find a (insert electronics retailer name here) store and do the same. That should provide the answers you seek.

Have a good weekend all.

Ernest Wilson

January 5, 2008 7:20 PM

A slight digression for a question.

I am writing a book on sustainable innovation, looking at how cross sector cooperation actually works to promote sustainable innovation, if/when it is done 'right'. Its based on interviews in the US and around the world.

I recently read some statistics somewhere that were quoting, I believe, the recent McKinzie innovation study. However, I cant find the exact source and numbers…

I wonder if any readers out there in Innovation Land know details and source:

It's to the effect that ‘X’ percent of executives (+or- 70%??) believe innovation is essential; but only ‘y’ % (around 50??) have formal programs in place. And of those, only ‘Z’ % are still functioning 18 (??) months later?

If anyone cd help out, wd be greatly appreciated.

Ernest Wilson

Gregg Davis

January 7, 2008 1:26 AM

There is a much deeper experience that good design brings to its consumer and it is more than just skin deep most often. It certainly hits home with many people who connect with it and they respond by coming back as repeat customers if it’s more than superficial. The learning curve for understanding this difference is one that may take a long time for our cultures to absorb the full power of the distinction and to take advantage of it fully.

The relationship you mentioned can be a powerful one, and many of us see more parallels between these consumers and products as there are between 2 people (though clearly less dynamic). They ARE relationships, just as psychologists have studied between people for a long time, and people make their choices with products and services in remarkably consistent patterns as well.

Gong, even those people who claim to NOT be part of a group but rather to be rebels have been observed to follow amazingly consistent patterns of others with similar motivations. Style can be a uniquely distinguishing factor for choice, but usually even that has deeper roots that 'connect' with those who select it.

One could call these ideas marketing names, but it makes no sense to design things for people without trying to understand what they want and how to make them more relevant to them. After all, not all red laptops will be desired by people who want red laptops. Some will be huge successes, and other red ones will flop.

In the end, there is usually more to choices than what it looks like on the surface.

Gregg Davis
Design Central

Peg Z

January 7, 2008 2:12 PM

For Ernest Wilson,
About a month or two ago, Tim Manners at Cool News/Reveries ( sponsored a survey on innovation and some of the replies may be pertinent for your search.
Good luck,


January 7, 2008 7:33 PM

If the future of PC companies involves creating an ecosystem of products the way that Apple has then I wonder if at some point we will have to make some decisions that will seriously affect the people we interact with and the materials we can access. For example, right now I don't see much difference in choosing an HP, a Dell or a Sony laptop. The big choice in laptops for me is Microsoft operating system or Apple. If PC companies are looking to further differentiate from one another, do you think we will also have PC company specific MP3 players or content that is only licensed to certain PC manufacturers?

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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