Whether or not you agree with Bruce Nussbaum, one of the leading media voices to support the approach to design inherent in design thinking, and his recent highly publicized declarations that design thinking has been a failed experiment; it may be useful in that it may provoke a broadening of the discussion around what it takes to create great design.

One aspect of the design of business upon which I would love to see such discussion is the role of design in the creation of competitive advantage. I have always believed that design thinking is most powerful when paired successfully with the elements of business thinking and that this happy marriage can provide great momentum to the process of producing market innovations. Market innovations that provide competitive advantage often exhibit one of its key characteristics…they differentiate the business from competitors in the market place. I believe it is the responsibility of business designers to understand how to achieve this and to continually innovate the tools and methods of design to achieve this. It is core component of the strategy formation process and an important area in which the role of designers and design managers can move upstream.  

In the design innovation process insights drive ideas and the deeper the understanding generated by your insights the more plentiful, inspiring and diverse your ideas are likely to be. Design research that engages with customers and users is the principal way that designers gain the insights that reveal unmet needs. Customer personas are an important by-product of such research and provide a lens through which empathic designers can imagine and validate ideas and concepts aimed at satisfying their goals and needs. However, I would like to suggest a desk research tool that builds on the primary research and resultant personas and can help focus in on potential unmet needs and which are not provided by competitors. The goal of this tool is to identify competitive white space that a business might occupy and which can result in differentiated products and services. The tool is called the competitor customer experience audit.

What makes the audit powerful is that it enables an expert experiential critique of leading competitor offerings through the eyes of the business’s customers.  This technique goes beyond a basic usability evaluation or feature inventory, and instead focuses on how well competitors satisfy the goals and motivations unique to each of the personas that comprise the business’s target customer base.  For example, it’s useful for a brokerage firm to know which of its competitors offer complex options trading, however it’s far more valuable to know which (if any) competitors provide a complex options trading experience that meets the needs of its target personas.  The persona perspective allows for a deeper investigation and analysis in that it provides many more benchmarks upon which to evaluate the success or not of the competitors’ experience in satisfying target customer goals. The end result is the uncovering of experience-driven competitive white space that can be used to feed idea generation, concept development, feature definition and prioritization.

The competitor experience audit benefits business by:

       Helping to bridge competitive gaps, gain competitive advantage, and differentiate the user experience

       Contributing to efforts to define business and design strategy

       Identifying important features and opportunities for innovation

       Informing design teams tasked with defining and designing the “experience” aspects of the site

       Contributing to creative brief and design principles

       Establishing competitive benchmarks

In conclusion, from a customer-centered design and marketing point of view, market-based practices must be developed that inform the strategy formation process. The systematic production of design information and intelligence is essential to support the creation and iteration of a unified and integrated customer experience manifested in a wide range of products, services, environments, and communications, both analog and digital. When businesses contemplate new online initiatives, they are often confronted with analyzing an overwhelming amount of customer and competitor research.  As a result, there are seemingly an endless variety of directions a company can take its web channel.  The problem is not a lack of data – it’s applying that data to the right projects – the ones that successfully align customer needs with business objectives.  The competitor customer experience audit provides the focused insights that can drive innovation.

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