I’ll Be There for You

I’ll Be There for You

How to get closer to your customers.

By Alan Siegel & Irene Etzkorn


Alan Siegel is CEO of Siegelvision, a brand identity consultancy, and founder and chairman emeritus of global brand strategy firm Siegel+Gale. Irene Etzkorn is executive director of leadership and simplification at Siegel+Gale. From Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity (Twelve). Copyright ©2013 by Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn. Reprinted by permission.

To some extent, all companies today are in the “experience” business. How do you manage and improve customer experience when every customer is unique and some interactions are life-changing while others are forgotten in an instant?

Think about why many customer experiences come up short: It’s because customers are not getting what they expect or what they need from a product, service, or interaction with a company. Many things can get in the way of satisfaction—miscommunication, underperformance, complications, confusion—and as they do, the distance between company and customer grows. Simplicity is about removing those barriers and shortening that distance.

It’s also about helping business to get in touch with the reality of people’s situations and needs. Countless products, instructions, and services are made unnecessarily difficult because real-world considerations were overlooked. We’ve all asked the questions, “Who designs these things?!” or, “Who wrote this?!” Usually, it’s as we’re struggling with impenetrable packaging or trying to turn off an exasperating alarm. Similarly, the more luxurious your car, the more likely its owner’s manual will fill your entire glove compartment, and you still won’t be able to reset the clock. Despite the time, money, and attention paid to the design of your owner’s manual, it is still useless when you have a problem on the road.

We call it the design-in-a-vacuum phenomenon, and it explains a lot of the world we live in, like how microscopically sized drug instructions evolved. The labels that wrap around over-the-counter medication bottles, although they are marvels of printing technology, now unfurl with type so small that even those in the best of health can’t read them.

Every day throughout corporate America, task forces examine processes, streamline interfaces, and redesign documents with an eye toward “simplifying” them. Why, then, does complexity still abound whether you are booking a flight, buying a vacuum cleaner, or calling a bank? Why is it always a case of retrofitting? Why is it so rare for a product or service to be launched with simplicity baked into it?

We maintain that the missing ingredient is . . . (drum roll) . . . EMPATHY.

By empathizing, we mean imagining the context in which someone will buy, read, or use the product or service you’re offering, then designing that offering to reflect those needs first and foremost. Since simplicity is the takeaway experience of an interaction, it follows that the creator of the experience must “get inside the head” of the recipient to anticipate how the interaction will be perceived.

Here’s a dramatic example of what we’re talking about: Imagine you’re in a twenty-fifth-floor hotel room, and the fire alarm goes off in the middle of the night. You study the “You Are Here” diagram on the back of the door to find out where the nearest exit is. In that context, it looks more like a maze than an escape map. Why isn’t it clearer, easier to figure out quickly? Because those safety instructions were developed in an entirely different context—in relaxed conditions, with plenty of light and time to study the instructions and decipher them. The instructions were created without empathy.

Try the same exercise when you are settling in for your next airplane ride and examine the safety card in the seatback. You’ll realize that it too may have seemed fine when it was created in an office but now is unintelligible in a real-world setting.

The only meaningful measure of the success of this document is to test it in a way that lets you evaluate both perception and comprehension in the proper context. You’d want to hand it out on several flights and get reactions from a range of passengers who are typical of any flight—elderly, children flying alone, jaded road warriors, fearful first-time flyers, and so on. Give them only a limited amount of time to interact with the card—after all, you don’t get to study before a sudden emergency. Ask them how they interpret the icons, what their eyes were drawn to first, which items seemed superfluous, and so forth.

Ford Motor Co. seemed to find this out the hard way when it announced in November 2011 that it was sending customers who’d bought vehicles equipped with a digital dashboard control system, called MyFord Touch, a free upgrade following complaints about the system’s appearance and operation. Using a touchscreen in a moving vehicle is a far cry from studying it in the boardroom. The upgrade relies on a four-quadrant screen layout so that without looking at the screen the driver will easily learn and remember where commands are located: upper left, lower right, and so on.


The Conference Board Review is the quarterly magazine of The Conference Board, the world's preeminent business membership and research organization. Founded in 1976, TCB Review is a magazine of ideas and opinion that raises tough questions about leading-edge issues at the intersection of business and society.