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Square, Airbnb and why experience really is design

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I have re-kindled my love affair with fountain pens and as a result, there have been a few new additions to my collection of writing instruments. And given that some are relatively expensive, I decided to order a pen case from a small leather goods maker in North Carolina. It was well priced, and reviews indicated that it was well made. Their website was clean, simple and kept the focus on the goods.

However, when it came time to pay for the pen case, I was taken to PayPal’s website — and that is when the experience of interacting with the brand was broken — not because they (the pen case maker) did anything wrong, it was just that the PayPal interface and the user experience was so different from them. The checkout page acted like a time machine, taking me back at least a decade, as if all the progress we have made with e-commerce didn’t really happen.  As I proceeded to pay, I was faced with the friction of the PayPal experience.

Jack Dorsey, SquareThat prompted me to ask: why doesn’t the pen vendor just take Square. I mean, all I have to do is send them an email and send them Square Cash, a new product that launched last week.  I have been using the service for about a week and let’s just say that sending money (in the US) hasn’t ever been this easy before. (My colleague Kevin Fitchard, explains how it works in his piece on Square Cash.)

And while Square might not be as big as PayPal (yet), it has done one thing right: built a seamless experience. As somewhat of an ardent user of Square, I can appreciate a lot of invisible little things like the auto check-in on their Wallet app, the colors of cash sent or received (via Square Cash) or simply the clean, crisp emailed receipt. There is a consistency of experience: an expectation of payment being invisible and painless.

RoadMap 2013These days, when there is talk of design, most people focus on what they can see: the pretty websites, well designed gadgets and brilliantly colored packaging. And while those are important, what matters most to the customers is the whole experience. That experience is essentially a story, a narrative which ultimately enjoins us to a brand.

Designing this experience is what makes one company different from another. That is why experience design, which is the theme of our RoadMap Conference (November 5 & 6th, 2013 in San Francisco) has to be unique and can’t really be xeroxed. Square CEO and co-founder Jack Dorsey will be talking with me at RoadMap about how to create that experience.

It’s not an easy task. Microsoft did a good job of copying Apple stores, but it still lacks that seamless story, one that creates an experience like Apple. And the reason is not that Microsoft is making bad products — they are just making different things and have not been able to figure out what is their story and what is the experience they want to offer.

VirginAmericaSeatbacksA perfect embodiment of a great experience design is Virgin America, an airline whose story can be told as “hassle free and happy travel.” That thesis is what they extend to the colors and interior lighting of their planes, and most importantly how they interact with their users. They are collaborative, friendly and playful and that is reflected in every single touch point users have with Virgin America. Virgin presents a sharp contrast to airlines like United and American — who undertook a major makeover, but no amount of paint can hide the fact that they have been unable to craft a consumer friendly experience, something I noted in an earlier post.

Another company analogous to Virgin is Airbnb. Summing up her take on a recent AdaptivePath conference, Core 77’s Gloria Suzie Kim wrote,

Airbnb uses Disney’s “Snow White” as a humanizing Service Design narrative framework in order to better understand and empathize with guests and hosts for the end to end experience. Since Airbnb’s product is the trip, it requires understanding and empathizing with guests and hosts, throughout the end-to-end experience.

Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia (who is speaking at RoadMap) is a designer who hails from the Rhode Island School of Design. He says designing a strong story and brand comes from paying attention to all those the little details that make up the whole experience for users. He encourages his design-centric team to celebrate and engage with all the little details. He once brought his entire product team to Jiro Dreams of Sushi as a way to point out excellence in detail-orience.

Airbnb has a unique challenge and opportunity when it comes to creating its experience that is different than building gadgets or re-branding airlines or launching payment systems. The relationship between host and user is an entirely new form of interaction — is it a hotel, a sublet, a friend’s couch? It is all of these things and also none of them. Thus the experience can be free of the legacies of the past, but needs more crafting than the legacy systems that it’s disrupting.

Airbnb neighborhood feature screenshotThe newest and most interesting e-commerce brands are carefully crafting an end-to-end emotional experience to win over customers. Warby Parker paved the way with hipster frames, cheap prices and easy shipping, and now sites focused on selling women’s apparel like Gilt, Everlane, Wanelo, and True&Co are using data to rethink the e-commerce experience.

Data will no doubt play a crucial role in learning and reshaping the next-generation of connected experiences. Dennis Miloseski, the head of Samsung’s new year-old Design America studio in San Francisco, told us recently that Samsung troves research, data, analytics and ethnographic studies to try to get the experience of all its products just right. It might not always succeed, but it’s now turning to the design and data-centric approach of the Bay Area studio to help inform all of its divisions back in Korea.

Unfortunately, companies often times tend to focus too much on how a product looks and the features that can be grafted on a product. AdaptivePath CEO Brandon Schauer puts it well, when he writes:

Whether we talk about greeting cards, mobile apps, or vacation get-aways, the experience is the product. From the perspective of customers, everything that goes into making up that experience—technology, materials, service support, or a supply chain—simply becomes the magic behind the experience.

Yet the orientation and focus of our businesses is the inverse of this customer perspective. We plan around features and operational functions, leaving the customer experience as an unintentional byproduct of how the pieces and parts happen to come together for the customer.

During the heyday of the industrial and manufacturing economy, what mattered was the brand, Schauer says. Today, because we as a country are becoming essentially a services economy, the focus should be around the branded experience instead.

Square, for me is that type of experience. I am probably not going to remember what font is being used or what color type is on display. What I will remember is a process of easy cash exchange, whether it is with friends, family, my local butcher or cafe or Starbucks. That is the essence of a modern company — technology, infrastructure and complexity hidden by a well designed experience — that to me is experience design.

A personal message: Experience design is a new way of thinking about the world, and we will discuss this thinking at our RoadMap conference on November 5th and 6th in San Francisco where speakers from companies such as Square, Airbnb, True & Co., will tell us what works, and what doesn’t. I hope you guys can join me and Katie Fehrenbacher at the event.

20 Responses to “Square, Airbnb and why experience really is design”

  1. Gee Deezy

    Know what else is sad: PayPal provides tools to totally integrate check out into a vendors site, thus removing the pain you just described. Vendors that don’t use it are either lazy or out-of-touch with the current tools.

  2. James Harradence

    Om, experience design is hardly a new way of thinking about the world. Pump the brakes a little partner.

    Luxury hospitality industry, luxury auto industry & luxury goods industry have been thinking this way for decades.

    New to tech I will buy…….

    • James

      I think the experience design used be to be something luxury goods industry -autos, hotels and fashion used to do. Not any more. Now they are priming the pump and that is why you see LVMH and others suffer the backlash.

      Hype and quality and marketing were completely out of sync and that has led to the rise of new boutique hotels and fashion companies are taking a step back.

      The idea of experience design has gone through a change and will go through further change as we start to see the blending of online/offline experiences.

      Well, at least that is how I feel.

      Maybe another article, soon ;-)

  3. Great article @Om.

    I followed Nokia’s collapse from the front row, and completely agree on the need to focus on holistic experience. Nokia had great long-lasting hardware, but the software just didn’t deliver in competition against software oriented companies Google and Apple. Impact at Nokia? $200B share value lost over 10 years time.

    At BetterDoctor ( we try to build a startup that focuses on holistic experience. We have everyone (engineers, designers, marketing, sales) working together to deliver the best possible experiences. Learnings after two years? It’s super hard to get every detail ironed out while trying to be agile and fast to market.

    Would be great to hear opinions from other startups.

  4. Elie Chevignard


    “Square, for me is that type of experience. I am probably not going to remember what font is being used or what color type is on display. What I will remember is a process of easy cash exchange”

    Yes, in fact Square Cash even uses an “existing UI” by relying on email. Which is a very clever way to solve 2 classic massive problems: change and aversion and the chicken-egg paradox.

    Here a blog post I wrote about this ;)

  5. ZooZ Payments

    Great article!

    I’m a big believer that “the experience is the product,” and that ideally consumers engage with an “experience” without notices all of the “product” feature nuances. Actually, the goal is sometimes for the product features to fade into the background, precisely because the experience is so crisp, as you noted.

    For example, when consumers want to checkout on an e-commerce site or app, they expect the same payment experience, regardless of whether they’re shopping on a website, tablet, or smartphone, whether on the couch or at the supermarket.

    This doesn’t mean that the user interface should look exactly the same on all devices. It means that the seamless experience that’s optimized for iOS should be designed differently for an Android, and still differently for a website view on a desktop. But the same high level experience and design should be consistent across all consumer engagements with the product.

    Check out my blog post about user experience and design in Zooz’s Web Checkout 3.0

  6. Great story, but there are several faulty data points here. Sukiyabashi Jirō is a singular experience and Jiro is notoriously obsessed with detail, but its the antithesis of customer-first restaurant. A sitting runs $500 and lasts roughly 17-19 minutes. Guests are discouraged from taking photos. Non-English speakers are advised not even attempt to make a reservation. Sukiyabashi Jirō is the exact opposite of experience-focused design. Product is the only thing that matters to Jiro.

    I think the reference to Microsoft is misplaced as well. The experience and design isn’t the problem with their newest products. Metro design language is years ahead of most forward looking companies today, yet the products continue to fail on launch. The problem is that of product/market fit, not experience and design. Reducing their problem to the latter obfuscates the most important point – everything must line up in order for the product to take off. Experience is only the last mile.

    • Patrick Newbery

      You make a very important point: the nature and quality of the experience is irrelevant if it doesn’t fit the market context (customer need and situation). I would say that thus is exactly what experience design should be helping business understand. It’s not the last 10% of design that makes a great experience, it’s the 90% of understand what to do, for whom, and why.

      • Patrick

        When you say, “It’s the 90% of understand what to do, for whom, and why” I nod my head in agreement. To Misha’s point, I think doing it at scale that can impact millions of customers is the silver bullet that can have lasting impact on a business. A case in point is Apple and so is Virgin America. I think Amex too is like that in many ways…

    • Misha

      On Microsoft, I think you basically made my point. The point is that they have so many customer groups and conflicting stories that there isn’t a single narrative. Even Google for all its confusion has a single narrative – cloud is the future, let’s live on it (and of course click on ads while you are at it.)

      I think the key for Microsoft is to find the focal points, connect them together. Technology and products are only a part of it. Nokia tablets are a good starting point — I wish they don’t muck up a chance to create a seamless story.

  7. Peter B. Cunha

    Great great piece. I feel that most companies miss the boat entirely on the design front (forgetting about the whole user experience – as design). The ones who nail it are the memorable ones.