What can life-centred design teach us about brand purpose?

Several years ago, General Electric veteran Doug went to observe his greatest creation at work. As the lead designer of high-tech medical imaging devices, he was on a hospital visit to see one of his MRI devices in action. Expecting to enjoy the experience, Doug was shocked to see a little girl waiting for a scan in floods of tears. He realised that, although what he’d built was a scientific success, he hadn’t considered what getting an MRI would actually feel like. His design didn’t work.

This epiphany led Doug to reimagine the entire experience and create the ‘Adventure Series’ scanner. A piece of machinery capable of all the leading-edge imaging, but also of turning a hospital room into a pirate ship, an underwater kingdom or an out of this world space odyssey.

Doug’s scanner is a great example of why empathetic design, in one guise or another, has become the dominant force in product and service innovation. And a key pillar of modern business growth.

In the last few decades, organisations of all sizes have committed themselves to empathetic design methodologies, approaching business problems through the lens of their customers. By identifying the overlap between their customers’ needs and their own, they uncovered a new realm of opportunity. In that space, organisations have added value to themselves and more importantly, people’s lives.

The shrinking land of opportunity

However, in recent years this method of design has begun to look increasingly limited for two key reasons.

The first is that organisations have fixated on their customer only when they are directly engaging with their product or service. Consider why businesses invest enormous time and effort into their onboarding experience, but almost nothing into off-boarding. We shouldn’t be impressed that it only takes two clicks to cancel a Netflix subscription.

The second is that organisations have too often continued to follow the same bad design habits. Empathetic design requires deep understanding of the customer but instead, empathy is too often used as a buzzword to disguise shallow insights. The route of innovation becomes a formula for replication. In this context, design stories like Doug’s feel further and further from reality and we end up with a model that looks increasingly like this.

This shift has caused blinkered creativity. When we treat empathetic design as a formula to follow - asking the same shallow questions no matter the situation - it is hardly surprising that they get the same answers. We have reduced our area of opportunity to add value and connect with real people. And in turn, we get homogenous products…

…and the rise of the ‘blands’:

The Amazon of it all

As in so many modern stories, Amazon tells it best, for better and worse.

Amazon – with the stated mission to be ‘the Earth’s most customer-centric company’ - has a larger role in all our lives than any other business in history. 18% of the UK are spending just under £100 a year subscribing to Amazon through Prime, with a similar percentage welcoming Amazon straight into their home through Alexa devices.

In their relentless drive to help us ‘find, discover and buy anything’, they’ve become far better at what they do than anyone else on the planet.

But what more could they be doing? Does their narrow definition of customer experience - ‘find, discover and buy’ - actually stop them from seeing beyond what’s right in front of them? Really, in 2021, who genuinely thinks brilliant customer experience simply revolves around ‘getting more stuff’? This can’t be empathetic design, can it?

Enter life-centred design

Life-centred design starts from the principle that each one of us is part of an ecosystem. People are not in a vacuum when they interact with businesses, but instead are operating within a much more complex sphere. And in the midst of the greatest existential crisis in living memory, the individualistic nature of narrow customer-centricity like Amazon’s not only fails to see individual’s wider needs, but also the bigger picture. This is what life-centred design seeks to address, considering the needs of the environment and society, as well as the customer, and how they each intersect with business.

Some have been dipping their toes into life-centred design thinking with excellent results. In 2017, Adidas released the Parley Ocean trainer – a premium pair of shoes with the added benefit of being woven from ocean plastic – so supporting the reduction of a global problem. In two years, they sold 16 million pairs while having both met customer and environmental needs.

Getting purposeful

But how does a business convincingly make this shift? One pair of trainers does not reorient a whole company. For companies to truly evolve and differentiate today requires bigger thinking. Life-centred purpose thinking. Adopting a purpose that intersects with this much larger sphere – life – expands business scope for opportunity in a way that can underpin real and lasting transformation.

Nike are there already. Their mission statement: ‘To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world. *If you have a body, you are an athlete’ is one of the world’s best known but in 2019 they added a life-centred purpose. They’re now committed to ‘unite the world through sport to create a healthy planet, active communities and an equal playing field for all.’ That’s why it should come as no surprise that their measures of success include progress on environmental and societal value targets, as well as commercials.

John Donahoe, Nike’s President and CEO stated the reasoning behind their realigned focus in their most recent impact report: “If there is no planet, there is no sport. It is this understanding that drives the urgency of our commitment to sustainability and impact.

venturethree recently collaborated with French health-tech company Dreem to re-engineer their purpose to something uniquely ambitious for their category: ‘Wake the world up to the beautiful impact of being better at sleep.’ Purpose helped to shift Dreem from selling more products to solving more problems; they’ve been successful in getting their devices FDA approved and incorporated into research projects at more than 30 leading scientific institutions. Founder Hugo Mercier summed up their new raison d’etre: “We don’t just have consumers and clients; we help people with real issues.

So, circling back to Amazon, what could adding a life-centred purpose do for their impact, societally? How might they use their incredible reach, brand recognition and data to have a lasting and positive impact on the world? Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, Black Lives Matter and ongoing ecological and environmental disaster, now more than ever we need to find out.

And of course, organisations don’t need the might of Jeff Bezos to make change. In our post-pandemic landscape, it is those who are willing to embrace life-centred thinking into their purpose that will unlock new opportunity and value. Ones that don’t actively contribute to the problems we collectively face (or blithely ignore them) but see themselves as part of the solution. They will be the agents for real change.