The Business Case For Beauty
We had the pleasure of hosting Product Tank Auckland’s first Unconference at RUSH in September. Close to 100 people came in early on a Saturday morning to level up their product management skills.
An Unconference’s agenda is set by whoever turns up. The attendees propose topics they’d like to discuss, and whoever shares their interest joins them for a conversation.
I took the chance to gather perspectives on a question that I’d been pondering for some time:
How might we make the business case for beauty?
We have examples to point to where investing in beautiful design helps a company win a category such as Apple in computing, Xero in accounting, and Airbnb in holiday accommodation.
But when it comes down to product backlog prioritisation and the discussion is “should we spend our time making feature X more elegant or start making feature Y?”, the latter wins out more often than not.
So how do we make a business case for it?
At its simplest, a business case needs to explain the resources consumed will be worth it to meet the business need. Examples could be reducing the cost of acquisition, decreasing customer churn, or increasing customer lifetime value. If we spend this, we can do this, which will achieve this. It’s quantified, logical, and investable.
How do we define beauty?
This gets harder - even Google passes on answering this one. Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder? Also unhelpful. One of the Product Tank attendees defined its observable effect as “bringing customers joy”. That felt pretty good. Looking up Wikipedia, it offers this:
“Beauty is the ascription of a property or characteristic to an entity that provides a perceptual experience of pleasure.
The experience of "beauty" often involves an interpretation of something as being in balance and harmony with nature, which may lead to feelings of attraction and emotional well-being.
Often, given the observation that empirical observations of things that are considered beautiful often align among groups in consensus, beauty has been stated to have levels of objectivity.”
Beauty feels natural
Now we’re getting somewhere. First, if we can make our products feel natural to interact with, that has a universal appeal. Material Design captures elements of this in its underlying principles:
“Material Design is inspired by the physical world and its textures, including how they reflect light and cast shadows. Motion maintains continuity, through subtle feedback and coherent transitions.”
In other words, it seeks to behave like the world does - it feels natural, and gives us pleasure as a result.
An example of this in action was our collaboration with ASB and Starship to create the Magic Forest for children in the emergency waiting room. We created a fantastical visual environment that behaved very naturally – if they were quiet and very still, inquisitive birds emerged from the forest. If they were loud and jumping around, the birds retreated back into cover, just as you would expect in a real forest.
Cultural context influences our idea of beauty
Referring back to the Wikipedia article, beauty is also ‘aligned among groups in consensus’. In a multi-cultural society like New Zealand, this poses an interesting design challenge. Asian, European, Māori and Pacific ethnic groups all bring their own ideals of beauty, and a whole lot of beautiful blends in between.
If you look at the table below, you can see that even our associations of colour vary greatly:
The idea of beauty has evolved over time, and with generations as well. Have a conversation with your parents or children about fashion, interior design, or any aspect of visual culture and the generational differences become apparent. Add the lens of subcultures found in art, music, political movements, sport and obscure corners of the internet and the influences on an individual’s mental model of beauty are many.
Against this backdrop of complexity, how can we create beautiful experiences that bring our customers joy?
By listening, observing and engaging with our customers attentively in our design process, we can learn what beauty specifically means to them in their cultural context.
Through continuous experimentation, you can provide an increasingly beautiful experience as your customers define it, and track the impact it has on your business outcomes.
Execute beauty well in the experiences you deliver for your customers and it will bring them joy. Make them feel that strongly, and they’ll remember it. Really make it special, and they might tell someone how your experience made them feel.
This fits so well with where our design practice has been at RUSH and where we're headed. We started out as a game company before evolving into the integrated design and technology studio it is today. Enjoying creating things for people to enjoy is in our company’s DNA.
Making the business case for beauty
So where does that leave us in our product backlog prioritisation? Here are a few instances in which I believe the business case for beauty can be made:
- Increasing conversion of customer acquisition activities by increasing brand credibility
- Emotionally differentiating your product from your competitors with feature parity to reduce customer churn
- Increasing referrals by creating an emotive moment in the customer experience that strengthens brand recall
- Increasing revenue by charging a premium for providing a more pleasurable experience
I’ve always loved this quote from Shaker philosophy, a group who applied their belief system of simplicity, utility and honesty to furniture design:
“Don't make something unless it is both necessary and useful; but if it's both necessary and useful, don't hesitate to make it beautiful.”
Creating, experiencing and appreciating beauty is a fundamental part of what makes us human. Be a champion for it in the customer experiences you create.