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Podcast #57 - Brian Solis Helps Us Rethink Design


Brian Solis is a digital analyst, anthropologist and also a futurist who studies the effects of disruptive technology on business and society. We chat with Brian about his latest book, X: The Experience When Business Meets Design. He explains how business needs to humanize their branding experience at a personal and cultural level, and be contextually relevant. 

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Adam: Welcome to Episode 57 of The Crowd. I’m talking to Brian Solis of briansolis.com


Welcome to Near Me’s podcast, The Crowd, bringing you interviews from thought leaders in the collaborative economy who’ll be sharing their knowledge, diverse real world experiences and stuff you need to know to help build a successful marketplace. If this is your first time joining us, thanks and welcome. I’m your host, Adam Broadway.


Today’s guest is Brian Solis. He is a digital analyst, anthropologist and also a futurist. He’s worked at Altimeter Group. Brian studies the effects of disruptive technology on business and society, humanizing technology’s causal effect. He shares his knowledge through books, speaking events and his widely read blog to help people see others differently and to understand what to do about it. He is an award-winning author, avid keynote speaker and globally recognized as one of the most prominent thought leaders in digital transformation and innovation. Today, we’re going to chat to Brian about his latest book, X: The Experience When Business Meets Design, how business needs to humanize their branding experience at a personal and cultural level and be contextually relevant with empathy as a foundation, help define your brand by those who experience it and learn about his early childhood dreams of being a rock star.


Well, I have the great pleasure of chatting with Brian Solis. And you are a prolific technologist. You’ve been around for a while as have I based on your age. And I want to just talk before we get into it just to find out how did you get started in technology, how did you – what’s your journey? And where did you begin?


Brian: Oh my goodness. This is a story I rarely tell. It’s one of those strange journeys. But as a child and by child, I mean, somewhere around 8, 9, 10, I had always wanted to be a rock star. I started playing guitar at age 7. And somewhere around my early teens, I started getting into early computers beyond just what you would do with them as a user and was fascinated by wanting to program certain aspects of things that I couldn’t do or wanted to do. So up through high school, I learned how to code and figured I was either going to be a programmer or a rock star. And in my early days, one of my first jobs was a database manager of sorts for a technology marketing company which was early in and of itself in Southern California.


And I felt well, this is great but if I really want to get into tech, I’m going to have to move to Silicon Valley and I did so in 1996 right there as the web 1.0 boom was kicking off. And that really is where it all began and where things went completely chaotic because I never became a programmer in Silicon Valley. And I ended up helping startups for the most part early on or companies that acted like startups really try to grow as quickly as possible which was sort of the early days of what’s commonly referred to these days as growth hacking.


Adam: Brilliant. Well, I probably should’ve said where were you when the Atari 2600 came out? And boom! You would’ve had a visual right there. Well, I can empathize on the musician aspirations. I’m a drummer. So behind every entrepreneur is a frustrated musician I’m sure as well as a failed content management system behind every entrepreneur. Well, you’ve then seen it all happen as you said being on the cusp of things when you came to Silicon Valley. And you’ve seen the evolution of technology starting to commoditize everything and I guess the journey of product-centric systems that were focused on product and not necessarily on customer.


You mentioned you’ve got your database background and I’m betting that many of those early systems were all about the SKU, the VIN number, the product. And eventually sales force automation came in and customer relationship management and then content management and email marketing and traditional ecommerce, one to many. And now suddenly, we’ve got all of this social media revolution which upends the way businesses engage with us human beings and the peer-to-peer revolution of marketplaces.


So you’ve seen all of that and I guess you’ve got a glimpse into the future which is why you’ve written and just published this beautiful book that I’ve been reading called X: The Experience When Business Meets Design. And it’s something that I can hold in my hand. And as we said before we started recording, if there was an EMP blast and there was no electricity, I’d still be able to read it. That’s a big thing to be able to achieve. What would you say is the overriding message from the book before we go in and drill into some details that you’d really like to, I guess, summarize to the people listening?


Brian: Well, I think the biggest thing that I would love for everyone to not just understand but really appreciate is why publish a print book in a digital economy. And that’s really what the point of the book is about. It’s about finding ways to connect with people in, I guess, ways that are more meaningful, thoughtful and experiential. So the book’s premise is that the future of any business is really going to be rooted in the experiences that people have and share which means then that they can’t be left for chance. We can’t just design great products. We can’t just have great customer service.


We have to have all of these things that are, I guess, designed around this experience that you architect, that you want people to have and share very thoughtfully in every moment of truth throughout the customer life cycle in ways that appeal to the senses and I guess, without getting too abstract, just making a special engagement through experiences. And the book talks not only about the importance of that but how to design experiences.


Adam: One of the points of the book that you mentioned and really stuck out for me was the word empathy which is a word I love because when you talk to somebody who really empathizes with you, there’s that relationship building that occurs because of a common experience versus sympathy which is there, there, it’s all okay or gee, I can only imagine what you’re going through. But empathy is that experiential, shared experience. So often, a business that’s born out of necessity has that empathy in its DNA. My question is can you teach the old dogs’ brands new tricks, the industry giants that are often outsourcing this with focus groups and outsourced consultants? But how do they then walk a mile in my shoes as a customer?


Brian: I love the fact that you just brought out the differences between sympathy and empathy. I think at best businesses even – let’s just say at best but I’m giving them a lot of leeway. Empathy is about as close as they get to customer engagement or just human engagement. But the real opportunity here is to better understand how people go through life, how people relate to businesses or brands, how people want to do business, what they value, what they remember, what their struggles or opportunities are, what are their goals or aspirations because this is sort of the new foundation for building relationships with people by empathizing with them and then using empathy as a way to then innovate because today, we’re blasted with all kinds of new technology, probably more than we can keep up with.


But technology itself isn’t the answer. Technology is sort of an enabler or sort of a facilitator for something great. And what we have here is an opportunity to understand what would make us great, what would make us relevant moving forward. And a lot of that has to do with the experiential level which is essentially emotional reactions to stuff. And that happens over and over again whether I’m using a product, whether I’m calling customer service, whether I’m talking to a representative, all these other factors that most of us just don’t even take the time to consider.


So this is a real special moment where we get to understand what makes people different and then how to sort of appreciate value and in turn use it as our own inspiration for innovation because I tell you, today’s decision makers within any organization is so far disconnected or so far removed from how society is evolving and changing that they’re making decisions based on guts or hunches or past experience that is placing them dangerously close to a path of irrelevance rather than getting them closer to people as things evolve.


Adam: Is there hope for those larger organizations who are kind of, their culture is well, let’s outsource that, let’s outsource somebody to do the research for us? Could you think of a brand or two other than Apple or some of those that you’ve mentioned in your book that are standing out in that respect?


Brian: Oh yeah. Well, the ones I mentioned in the book are Disney and Lego and Apple and Sephora because these are companies that are going out of their way to be relevant to a different type of customer using technology to enhance what they learn and also the experiences that they design for people to have in every step of the customer journey and with the end result of not only building a relevant brand but building relationships over time that are – not that they’re different. It’s just that they’re what people can relate to today. And we’re talking about generations, not just by age but generations by behavior of people who share similar interests, who share similar decision making patterns, who are influenced and in turn influenced similarly.


And these are just things that we have to learn because many decision makers don’t live their brand the way that their customers do. And rather than looking at hey, look at all of these brands for what make them so amazing, what I tried to do was show specifically how experiences were designed and then used specific examples to help people bring it home because what I didn’t want was a book of just yes, this brand is great, this brand is great, this is what you do and then leave you to your own devices to figure out how that applies to you. What I wanted to do was give you a book that wasn’t going to be fluffy or superficial. It was going to be experiential of course through design. We can talk about that in a little bit. But what I really wanted to do was empower a whole new generation of very sophisticated and empathetic strategists.


Adam: I love the way you say that it’s the hope that we have for the future that we can commoditize the technology but we can never commoditize creativity or strategic thinking. And I think that’s something that kind of just shouted out from the pages of the book. You mentioned that some of those key points where business meets design is where you create those incredible experiences that they’re imaginative, they’re game changing, they’re unforgettable, functional, meaningful, sharable and actionable. Read the book for more detail people listening. But how do big brands then manage to do that? The thought for some brands is that we need to get the ROI on what we already invested in 5, 10 years ago. But because things are changing so fast, how do they shift their mindset to return on value?


Brian: What I introduced at some time, I guess, in the book and a lot of times leading up to the book was what I call ROE, return on experience. First, return on anything is sort of this. It’s sort of this before and after. I think part of the problem with ROIs when we really start to bend the rules where the return and the investment are things that become very clever but not really getting to the tangible, the heart of the matter. So ROI and experience are still your basics. Are we growing in market share? Are we increasing sales? How are conversions? But it also looks at not just “would somebody refer us to someone else?” but “did someone refer us?” And also, how close was that shared experience in alignment with the experience that we promised?


For example, today, I asked businesses to look at their brand promise or their vision or mission statement and then compare it to the feedback that they get from customers or the unsolicited expressions that people share online in reviews, in tweets, in blog posts, in YouTube videos because you find that there’s just really a disconnect. And that’s largely because of the model of how businesses do business. It’s here we are. Here’s what we do. And we spend an inordinate amount of money and time to convince you of said things. And then hopefully, you have that experience when you use it which is fantastic.


But at the same time, people are much more connected now. And as they became more connected, they became more informed. As they became more informed, they are now more empowered. And then with empowerment came this much more discerning and demanding customers. So they want experiences. They don’t want just product. They’re willing to pay more for experiences rather than products. And they’re also now starting to become brand agnostic in looking to companies that will do business their way.


And so we’re at a great intersection for what’s going to play out as a tremendous revolution in business. And it’s not – I don’t want it to sound dire but I call it digital Darwinism. Technology and society are evolving and it’s a choice. But a lot of companies, both philosophically and just fundamentally in how they’re designed and how they make decisions, aren’t capable of keeping up. They’re still making decisions and measuring success based on old criteria and not applying this sort of empathetic lens and filter to what could be different.


Adam: Is this then specific to a first world problem? Or what about emerging markets? You mentioned being brand agnostic and a lot of customers just – who gives me the best experience for a particular experience that I want to, I’m not going to say it but I will, experience? Who’s going to give me the best experience? Are first world countries at a, I guess, disadvantage at the moment because of this digital Darwinism where they’re kind of set in their ways, they’ve gone down a particular track versus the emerging markets? And how could they possibly leapfrog over “more modern” countries?


Brian: I think part of this is just wherever you are, society is evolving just it’s at different speeds and to different extents. At some point though, digital Darwinism, it is a horizon event that happens. We saw that even back in the late 70s, early 80s and well playing out into the 90s with Kodak, 2000s with Blockbuster and Netflix, borders into Amazon. We’re watching it play out right now with Ubers and taxis. And so the idea that there’s disruption – and I know that’s a buzzword but it’s literally disruption. If you look at disruption being doing new things that make the old ones obsolete, let’s just give it a very non-buzzy definition, that can happen anywhere at any time.


What I believe here though is that every business needs to turn an ear to how their customers are evolving, how people are evolving especially the ones that aren’t doing business with them today. They get an appreciation for what a day in the life looks like. How are they not finding them? Why are they not doing business with them? Because those are inputs that allow for you to start with a clean slate rather than basing a lot of your work on well, this historically is what we’ve done because I think what I want businesses to appreciate is that experientially they will not only attract more customers, they will retain them as well which as we know customer acquisition is one of the greatest costs any organization has to contend with.


And if we just sort of eliminate how fast that revolving door was spinning by keeping people there because they wanted to be there, you would learn quite a bit and that just – world status aside, it’s just simply helping people do what it is that they’re trying to do in either new ways or better ways without necessarily having the, let’s just say, shackles of either mediocrity or the past holding you from finding new ways to do this.


Adam: Well, speaking of the past, big data is enabling businesses to hopefully leverage the past experiences that they’ve recorded. And big data is a bit of a buzzword going around. But as far as pattern matching and predictive analytics and leveraging past, time series data, as companies begin to use marketing algorithms as part of their social engineering practice, how can authenticity and true empathy be maintained as the bedrock of this user experience knowing that things like big data and these wonderful predictive analytics are now fitting into the marketing machine and the user experience?


Brian: Well, yeah, big data, it’s game changing. I mean, we have access to big data. We in varying extents have had access to big data. I think what’s different now is something that I like to refer to as small data. Meaning that within these big chunks of data, you have the ability to see the small things, the important things which force you to ask very focused questions based on very focused intents. So you can learn enough to make decisions to experiment, to pilot, to be inspired to learn. This is where everything begins. You don’t know what you don’t know but you can’t get those answers to the question if you don’t know what question to ask. And you can’t get the questions to ask if you feel like you’re being sort of held to yesterday’s standards . We’re not asking the right questions today.


I like to talk about the movie Money Ball in the scene where Billy Beane is in a conference room, played by Brad Pitt in the movie, with his scouts. And he asks okay, what’s the problem? What’s the problem that we’re trying to solve? And all of the scouts are talking about how they have to replace this great player. And Brad Pitt/Billy Beane keeps asking, what’s the problem that we’re trying to solve? And they think that Billy has like lost it mentally because he keeps asking the same question and they’re answering it. And he says no, the problem that we’re trying to solve is that we can’t afford a fantastic player like the one we’re losing and we won’t ever be able to attract that type of player. We have to find the player who is that next person. And we’re going to have to use data to help us identify it so that we can get him while he’s up and coming.


Now, that then changes sort of the focus of which you will then use data to get what it is that you need. And I think sometimes it’s a simple question like what would my digital customer do differently than my traditional customer? How is my connected customer using the smartphone to make decisions versus my traditional customer? You’re really hyperfocusing these questions and then using data to help sort of fill in the blanks to give you insights because when you start asking very specific questions like that, the data will support some very, very interesting things depending on your datasets. But I could tell you that in my work with Google, we started asking some very specific questions. And we are finding out to what extent majority of companies or majority of customers are breaking the customer journey at least as we thought it was designed and hacking it.


And as a result, it’s redefining what the future landscape looks like. And for those companies that want to do business with the very mobile customer, there’s a great sense of urgency out there to change. And I think that’s part of it that data should help you create that sense of urgency, that case to bring about change. Otherwise, I think that without it you’re going to have a hard time selling it up to the sea sweep about getting resources and budgets to do anything new.


Adam: Yeah. And you mentioned too in the book about some examples with Telstra turning science fiction into reality. And the analogy was the Minority Report with things like facial recognition technology that is being used. And I guess we’ll see that augmentation of the online experience and the physical in-shop retail experience being able to overlap at some point where based on okay, that’s Adam working in the store. Oh, that’s the same Adam that also tweeted about us three weeks ago that had a bad experience. Let’s jump on that and make sure he has a great experience. And I’m guessing quantum computing will have us all in total real time user experience in the not too distant future. In fact, I see a book on Quantum Marketing in the future and I think we need to call it the "Quantum of Solis."


Brian: That was beautifully set up. I’m giving you virtual high fives from this side of the mic. Well done, sir. Well done.


Adam: But where that intersection does occur, how far away are we in your opinion? We do talk about it online and offline. But it’s fast intersecting so much. There are cameras everywhere. People’s privacy, they’ve given it up. They don’t care. My kids certainly don’t care about who knows what they’re doing, where they’re going at any one point in time.  So where that intersection occurs and marketers can really in real time individually or using peer group analytics know how to approach these customers as they walk through the door, where do you see that?


Brian: A real quick note on that. Privacy is something different to, for example, your kids. For us, we’re sort of the last generation to define it as it used to be defined. But at the same time, what we’re looking at here is understanding that for some like when you talked about the Minority Report version of the shopping experience, that technology exists in light levels like Telstra. They started to deploy it. But we’re just getting started. So to some older customers, they are going to believe that we’re crossing the creepy line. But for younger customers, those that are maybe digital natives or definitely digital firsts will appreciate it because there’s value in exchange for that idea of privacy or the data that’s given up.


Now, whether you know it or not, everything that we do is being tracked or shared even in the smartphones that you use or now in the much smarter cars that are starting to come out. So it’s just this understanding that you’ve already passed the creepy line. It’s just whether or not somebody breaks your trust which then is pretty difficult to earn back. Now, with that said, I think everybody’s intention is to use all of these data to build a better experience, to make sure that we can personalize those experiences and to make you feel that you are the only person in the world. And there’s nothing wrong with that intention. It’s just sort of how you do it.


For example, my colleague, Susan Etlinger, is part of big global data ethics organization where they discuss these types of things. Now, with that said, however, I think really what we’re looking at doing is just making things not only more efficient but actually great, wonderful and a joy to be able to do things our way when we want, how we want.


This is why Google calls these moments micromoments. And they’re redefining what the customer experiences moving forward. Now, that takes design. That takes architecture. Somebody has to think about what that experience could be in every moment of truth when you set foot at the store, when you go online, when you pull out your phone, when you open the box of our product, when you talk to a sales rep. Somebody has to design what that experience should be, that standard of which then how someone feels in return and then use that as sort of a platform for ensuring that everyone across the board is operating against that experiential standard.


It’s almost like the new brand guidelines or the new brand architecture but at a higher level of which even brand in marketing and sales and customer service operate against. So that’s the idea of experience architect needs architects or experience architecture needs architects. And that’s what I think the book is designed to do. It’s to hopefully inspire this generation of experience architects to design the future.


Adam: And I think to also individualize it for themselves too because as we see with the change in traditional ecommerce being one to many, I own the store, lots of customers come in. And we’re shifting to peer-to-peer marketplaces where you’re a buyer and a seller. Your individual branding is really important and I think empathy. And you mentioned also love. Attention does not equal love. So giving people attention is not necessarily loving them but empathy and love as part of the individual brand promise to your friends, to the people, your neighbors. As you participate in the future within a marketplace whether you’re putting your room up on Airbnb or an office space on Desks Near Me or participating in the peer-to-peer social economy, it’s a great book I think to individualize for one’s self as well.


I’m going to wrap it up now because I know how valuable your time is Brian. Two last questions. We mentioned the EMP blast earlier and that I’d still be able to read your book and that’s a great thing. If that was to happen, if there was a sun flare and an EMP blast and no technology, where would we find you?


Brian: Well, you would find me at briansolis.com. But with an EMP blast, you’d probably find me running around the streets pulling out my hair and wondering what we’re going to do. Other than that, just look up my name. And whatever format you choose to sort of engage with the information I produce – I try to produce different formats for everybody because there is no one way to consume information.


And the one thing I do want to leave you with though should there be an EMP blast, the book design, it really took 3 1/2 years because well I was really trying to do something special for the reader. One is why write a book in print about the future in the digital economy? But the point was the book. The point was that if you become empathetic and you study a day in the life of who your reader is and what they’re struggling with but even more so you look at say, behaviors. I looked at high school teenagers in terms of how they use textbooks versus how they use their phones and the apps and how they communicate with one another. I looked at information that we all – we’re all a little bit more impatient now. And I looked at what types of things connect with you.


How does that pace out over time? How much content can you take before you need a visual break or a white space? I looked at UX and UI of some of the favorite apps and tried to emulate all of those on paper. And what ended up happening is that I learned because I went through this. This is why it took 3 1/2 years that it would’ve just been easy for me to write another book. That’s what a lot of executives are doing today, doing what they’ve always done even if they have the best intention of helping someone with what it is that they create. But if it doesn’t relate to someone or is familiar or is frictionless or is even delightful or wonderful, then it’s missing the point to the point where even I found ways that said wow, we can make an analog app that makes print actually a much more beautiful experience in some cases than digital just simply because it was designed to be that way.


I mean, we figured out that the table of contents, this is a – when I say we, I mean my friends at Mechanism who helped me design this. It’s a wonderful ad design agency in New York and San Francisco. But just a tremendous, tremendous amount of value that we were able to acquire and go in through this process which then helped inspire innovation rather than what I think would’ve been at best iteration. And the book is a physical example of what’s possible when you challenge yourself to look at people differently and then take those insights and do something different.


Adam: Wow! That’s wonderful. And it worked for me too because I’m not a big book reader. So being able to get me to sit down for more than two minutes to read through, it was very engaging and the user experience was beautiful. So you achieved that for me and I’m sure for lots of others who are going to go out and grab a copy for themselves. And before then we finish up – and I will be also of course having this podcast transcribed and we’ll have links out to briansolis.com and all your social media accounts. In the quiet moments of which there’s probably only likely a few for you, what’s the one piece of life advice that you can think back on that you were given and that you’ve never forgotten?


Brian: Oh wow! Well, I guess that is to question everything and not take anything for granted, that it’s okay to ask why. Why do we do things this way? Why can’t we try something differently? Why does it have to be just because it’s the way we have always done things? I grew up thinking that because I always naturally wanted to look at why in my approaches to whatever I was going to work on that there was something wrong with me. And that conformity in some ways can be a bad thing. And if you have an idea and you believe in that idea, then you should absolutely question everything in order to pursue it because if anyone could take on innovation by doing things that way we’ve always done it then I think we’d be in a whole different future than where we are today.


Adam: That’s awesome, Brian. Well, I so much appreciated being able to talk to you. And I’m looking forward to catching up in person. Thanks again. Everybody go out. You got to get yourself a copy of X: The Experience When Business Meets Design.

Thanks for joining us on The Crowd, the podcast that keeps you connected. Join us at next episode for our chat with another amazing surprise guest or guests who will blow your socks off.

Topics: The Crowd Podcast Interviews


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