Crafting design strategies that result in truly compelling brand experiences, products, and services demands a change from traditional methods. It requires a more creative and iterative design approach that is optimized for identifying real human needs and addressing them with meaningful experiences.

Traditionally, the design process begins only after an organization has documented an exhaustive list of “must have” features and requirements. The assumptions used to generate this document are typically based solely on market research data and voice-of-customer (VOC) information. Information garnered through market research tends to be based on what has sold in the past, providing only a rear-view-mirror perspective of the market. Typically, VOC information consists of survey-generated data and anecdotal stories from ad-hoc customer groups. This data is helpful only for creating incremental improvements, but it does not provide the foundation of knowledge necessary to enable innovative leaps forward into “Blue Ocean” spaces, which are uncontested market spaces (as described in the book Blue Ocean Strategy by Kim and Mauborgne).

Many user needs are latent, so it is extremely unlikely that you could uncover any game-changing insights through customer interviews alone. It is unreasonable to expect that typical customers will have the imagination necessary to describe a future that is much different from today’s reality. This is the basis of the famous Henry Ford quote: "If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse."

Many organizations spend enormous effort analyzing and refining the wording of their requirements documents based on customers’ preconceptions of what they want. The result is that they miss what is of fundamental importance to their customers. This is why I believe that many requirements documents are highly polished but deeply flawed.

A Better Way: Human Needs Determine Success Drivers

Uncovering latent and unmet user needs demands the use of contextual and generative design research techniques optimized for discovering the valuable insights that drive innovation and create brand experiences that delight customers. Such techniques as empathetic immersion, user observation, and participatory design provide a deeper understanding of what is truly important to customers. This knowledge provides the background needed to create product experiences that are authentic, meaningful, and engaging. Providing your customers with these types of compelling experiences results in increased customer loyalty and superior long-term business results.

With that in mind, here are the five critical keys to uncovering those true success drivers:

1. Identifying needs and solutions is an iterative process.

The insights garnered from the holistic approach outlined here serve as a strong foundation to validate, complement, and challenge existing market research and VOC information.

Synthesize the insights you discover so that needs are described, as opposed to solutions. View these as a flexible set of product guidelines that become more definitive as the design process progresses. As conceptual solutions are created based on this flexible “insight-based” framework, validate them with customers. Use this feedback to refine the product guidelines.

2. Provide benefits, not features.

The value you provide customers lives in the quality of the experience you create for them—much more so than in your products and services themselves.

The graphic below pokes fun at how a technology company might promote a product like an apple; they focus on the features rather than its health benefits, its natural flavor, or the experience of biting into a fresh, juicy apple.

"The features and specifications of an apple.
Credit: Smart Design, Femme Den

3. Understand the context of use.

Understanding context is imperative when considering user experience. Observe the moment of use from a range of perspectives with the human experience as your central focus.

An example of one such perspective is the environment in which a product or service is used. Think about who is using your products and services and what physical abilities or limitations they may have. For instance, a product designed for hazardous areas would need to allow for an operator to interact with the device while wearing protective clothing and gloves.

Cultural background also shapes how people perceive their environment and the products and services they interact with. Factors such as the emotional, cultural, social, and physical aspects of the experience are often overlooked, but are crucial inputs.

4. Consider the whole customer experience of the brand.

Examine the user experience both before and after the moment of use. Think about how your customers research, purchase, setup, learn to use, and maintain your products and services. Ask yourself: “What is the environmental impact of my product or service? What happens at the end of its service life?”

Identify the range of customer interactions with your brand (products, services, out-of-box experience, purchasing experience, user interface, customer service, web portals, etc.) and consider how they can be coordinated as a single brand ecosystem. Each interaction provides an opportunity to positively impact the overall brand experience.

A holistic view of the entire product experience, including the product’s benefits to each stakeholder, offers valuable insight that may lead to new business opportunities and improve the overall experience.

5. Consider all key stakeholders.

An effective brand experience strategy requires consideration of the motivations and aspirations of a range of stakeholders. On the customer side, the stakeholders are those who interact with a product or service (end users) as well as less obvious groups such as purchasing influencers and maintenance providers.

A “brand audit” is a valuable exercise to gain a deeper understanding of how your customers respond to your brand and what preconceptions they have of your products and services.

Internal stakeholders, such as executives, marketing, sales, engineering, supply chain management, and regulatory teams all have different and sometimes conflicting requirements for future development programs. These needs must be understood and correctly weighted against each other, so that they are always based on what is most important to your customers.


Constructing design guidelines based on deep insights into customer needs is the most vital step toward creating compelling brand experiences and greater brand loyalty. Get these guidelines wrong, and you risk creating products and services that are highly polished but deeply flawed.

Unfortunately, many organizations fail to correctly prioritize stakeholder desires. These companies end up with inconsistent products and services that are muddled by a lack of coherent vision. In contrast, the few organizations that get it right successfully create a direct and honest statement that differentiates them from competitors.

Great design strategy is as much about saying “no” as it is about trying to be all things to all people. To achieve a unique and valuable market position, tradeoffs need to be made. If you want to achieve the highest possible value, you must provide your customers with meaningful experiences, not just a collection of features.

The pyramid of value created throug user experiences.