Reverse Engineering the Field of Dreams



Originally published in Applied Arts Magazine, 2015



"Ask now, build later" should be the mantra of any 21st-century brand

Ever since we started down the now well-trodden path of customer centricity some 15 years ago or so, the oft-quoted cliché “Build it and they will come” has become the marker for how not to do product development.


Early UX made it painfully clear that just throwing up a website and expecting a stampede of clicks-through is as naïve as expecting a big fat man in a red suit to slide down your chimney and leave a wagon-load of gifts on your living room floor every December 24. (Everybody knows Amazon put Santa Claus out of business, along with a host of other online retail hopefuls.)

The shortcomings and failures of early UX made it clear that the transaction — along with everything that led up to it and everything that came after it — is an experience. This had a halo effect in the world of bricks and mortar: suddenly we began to look at everything through the lens of experience, not just the digital. (Thus the birth of the term “bricks and clicks.”) We then set about deconstructing all of it and then trying to seamlessly weave it all back together in a way that respected the needs of the customer. This became the foundation for the discipline of customer experience design.

Now, with the adoption of the principles of design thinking, we have learned not to “build it” and expect them to come, but to begin with the customer, find out what they really need, and then build it with them. This turns the old “build it and they will come” process on its head.

While these truths may seem self-evident, we still see organizations operating in a field of dreams. A major bank feels the wave of disruption coming from a legion of start-ups armed with self-serve algorithms that allow customers to manage their money with a smartphone instead of a flesh-and-blood investment advisor. So what does it do? Does it begin the process by speaking with customers to understand their unmet and unarticulated needs? Nope. It builds its own solution — what it thinks is best for the customer — and then tries to validate it. Then they are surprised by what they learn in the focus groups (damn the focus group!).

A telecom helplessly watches its customers cut the cable and take their TV from a patchwork of online sources instead. Innkeepers watch their occupancy rates plummet as sharing apps like airbnb completely remove customers from the traditional sales funnel. What do they do? They desperately try to dream up their own apps to stem the tide of defection, without trying to understand what was driving their customers away in the first place.

Hence we had a global consumer goods company in the other day looking to reposition itself for the 21st century. They wanted us to “Uberize” their brand.

The digital enablement of customers has inverted the pyramid, increasingly putting them on the top and the brands that serve them scrambling for attention on the bottom as the upstart algorithms in the middle sort out the winners and the losers. There’s a surefire way to avoid the scramble: talk to customers first. Build it later, and build it with them. Then they will come. wn

will novosedlik