Tell Your Clients To Differentiate


I’ve had a recurring thought of late.

It’s the concept of differentiationOver the past couple weeks the idea has methodically found its way into my daily dose of design evangelism. Design and differentiation in one breath —yes, I feel the two are synonymous, like success and happiness.

In strategy meetings with colleagues and in a few proposals written for clients, lately, I find myself using that very word more and more often. Not as a mild prescription, but like it’s an imperative. Differentiate or die. There it is again. I said it in an email (no, not the ‘or die’ part) then in a Skype call yesterday when talking about what we could do to help one of our clients build their business in the digital space.

It’s always been my mantra to extol the virtues of design —not in the form of frilly add-ons, but perhaps as the one strategic approach you’re probably not using or exploiting to the fullest potential in the context of your overall business and marketing plan. Do you even have a plan?

Tell your clients to think about design as an investment in their future. I do.

Design is one of the best ways to separate one product from the next, certainly when all other variables appear to be equal. And to those who feel compelled to differentiate on price, well, that’s just a cesspool of broken dreams and diminishing returns. Instead, differentiate on design. That’s a more viable path to success and happiness.

Start with the crux of the client’s existence. What’s their story? What gets them out of bed in the morning? Do they have a wish list? What resonates with their audience? Then, invariably, the question surfaces: what’s unique or different about their company, people, products or services?

Many clients will struggle to answer this last question.

Do an audit of existing collateral; find out what’s working and not working; research competitors; find opportunities, understand what threatens to undermine their success.

Help answer the differentiation question.

Next, start the process of differentiating: establish brand and style guidelines, create a roadmap for design, communication standards, and user engagement; build prototypes, mock-ups and concepts that build on these and other inspirational ideas that are relevant to the problems at hand. Iterate, test, sketch, chart and discuss, throw away the crappy ideas, then iterate again (this is what I’m talking about). This approach pays dividends down the road.

Those of us who are keenly aware of the power of design to differentiate also know it can be one of the most elusive tactics to deliver on for our clients. Differentiating something —be it a product, service, brand, or user experience has become one of the most challenging aspects of creating products for the digital economy. I am reminded of the heaps of useless apps vying for our attention in a quick re-read of Chris Cunningham’s spot-on 2009 post for Ad Age.

Just take a look around. Hardware is a prime example, the lack of differentiation in devices is becoming more obvious and, shall we say, monotonous.
Smartphones, laptops, tablets, and television monitors are all beginning to look and function exactly the same. A thin rectangular plane, glass surfaces with radiused edges. The recent patent infringement cases fought between Apple and Samsung only underscore this lack of design differentiation.
Software is also noteworthy. Multi-touch and mobile applications with the same general UX; cookie-cutter Web CMS platforms perpetuating the ‘template mindset’. Don’t get me wrong, things like Web standards and SEO best practices are important considerations, but when everything starts looking and feeling the same, the results are largely forgettable.