Tacos and Thoughts That Tingle: From Austin, with Love
SXSW—this four-letter acronym typically evokes a variety of reactions. For almost everyone, the immediate thought bubble is most likely the unending, serpentine queue at airports, potentially followed by the colourful food trucks basking in the Austin sunshine that satiate oh-so-deeply. For others still, it is the excitement of interacting with Ishiguro’s Geminoid (who, as it turns out, can throw in a funny while frowning). And of course, there is all the wonder that comes with the beauty of film and music.
I had the opportunity this year to attend Interactive Week, and attempted to geek out on as many sessions as running in my TOMS would allow, (turns out approx. four a day.) As I digest all I have consumed over that week (al pastor tacos included), one specific session stands out for me. It was a talk delivered by Airbnb’s Experience Design expert, Steve Selzer. The name of the session challenged my very being—Why Empathy Isn’t Enough. Those who know me would tell you I would attend just to dismantle this absurd hypothesis! But instead, I walked away passionately agreeing with Steve. Because from a marketing perspective, we—as enthusiastic makers and sellers of goods and services—shouldn’t just be empathizing with individuals (in order to sell them more), but thinking more critically about humanity and where we are headed. (What?) Let me explain.
As consumers, we use our own sense of value judgment to decide if one product is better than another. But as marketers designing an offering for other people, we need to see the world through their eyes, without our own inherent biases. So we immerse ourselves in their minds and their worlds in order to empathize with them, to understand them, with the singular goal of selling more.
What do consumers want? Everything, right now. So we create products and experiences that are convenient, compelling and most importantly, frictionless. Bill Gates coined the term Friction-Free Economy back in 1996, and it brought with it as much excitement around the possibilities as it did fears around disintermediation. In today’s context, the less friction in how people consume a product/service, the quicker they come and the longer they stay. Uber, Netflix, Amazon, Seamless, and Shazam are all examples of this phenomenon of frictionless consumption. However, in a more macro sense we are coming upon a seismic shift in consumer culture that seems both sad and frightening. As product designers and marketers, we are doing everything in our power to remove any and all friction from our lives—we no longer need to pause, think, let alone self-reflect—or worse, be social (cue zombie visual here). As an industry, we are incentivising consumers to not participate.
As the audience cringed at this revelation, Steve humbly paused and asked the room: Is this the future we aspire to? While the room—most likely filled with technophiles and digital marketers— remained speechless, one saw pensive head nods, perhaps wondering about the one question that seems inevitable: Isn’t it incumbent upon us (as an industry) to then truly pause and self reflect on how we design experiences?
This isn’t to suggest we bring all friction back in. It just means that we identify the right friction that leads to self-discovery, reflection and personal growth. Airbnb, within the travel category, does this well by balancing the yin and yang of friction. While connecting you to your host results in a familiar human connection (reduces friction), it also gets you out of your comfort zone, where you discover new and unexpected places and things (builds friction). All resulting in a heightened sense of self-discovery and self-reflection. But as Steve pointed out, this isn’t happening elsewhere often enough. Worse, frictionless offerings are on the rise.
Steve offers us four ways we can build friction back into human-centered design:
Skill Building: We can see this in services like Purple Carrot and Blue Apron where they remove the logistical friction and leave you with a ready-to-roll-with recipe. This results in a joyful cooking experience where, if lucky, you discover you have what it takes to be a skilled chef, even if it’s in your own kitchen.
Self Reflection: Unstuck, an app that gives you the tools and tips to create change, is a more overt example that helps you arrive at an archetype and reflects back to you who you are in that moment. This end benefit has a ton of opportunity in health and financial services.
Collision: Lyft has offered people collisions via its car pooling service. A moment of discovering your circumstantial neighbor. (Imagine introducing collisions into your own organizations to fuel innovation.)
Confrontations: Allowing people to confront that which is difficult, the friction itself. In this case, Airbnb’s gamble on customers contacting the host directly, (which worked out well for them).
As marketers and strategists, we have the opportunity (perhaps even the responsibility) to broaden our lens of individual empathy—which at the moment is restricted to the singular goal to sell more—and become a source of friction for the greater good. And truly, doesn’t real life happen at these wondrous moments of friction—when you accidentally meet someone who matters, or come up with a promising idea because you had to respond to a scenario that made you uncomfortable? When friction-free translates into a mindless state of being, we forget to ask the important questions, check the consequence of our actions and interestingly (as consumers) forget to empathize with another’s perspective. Let’s also not forget that growth and innovation are powered by friction. So here’s to fueling some of it!
See you again, Austin. Thanks for the tacos and thoughts that (still) tingle.
*Note: Special thanks to Steve Selzar for a great session.
Shreya Mukherjee is VP, Planning Director at Deutsch
Shreya Mukherjee is VP, Planning Director at Deutsch