Design for less
Article

Design for less

Erik Roscam Abbing
  • Erik Roscam Abbing
  • Director

While in some parts of the world the big peak in intensive care occupancy is behind us, in others it’s yet to come. Here in the Netherlands we salute our healthcare professionals who have the worst behind them and take a careful first peek around the corner of Covid crisis management. What we see is a steep path down towards an economic cooldown that’s difficult to imagine.

An attractive long term view

Depending on what bubble you’re in, you’ll see a lot of articles circulating about the benefits of slowing down. And I must say I’m very susceptible to the arguments. The effects of cleaner air in China as a result of the lockdown may have saved 20 times more lives than Covid-19 has cost. And closer to home, people around me tell me how much calmer their days are without the travel and with so much more family time. Progressive economic scholars are even arguing that this may be the time to embrace non-growth economics where, instead of Gross Domestic Product growth, growth of wellbeing is the measure of an economy’s success.

The bitter imperative of slowing down

It is true that, as a species, our ecological footprint is so tremendous that, should we continue like this, we’d need 3 or 4 earths to sustain us. It’s also true that work related stress costs society billions in healthcare, loss of productivity and loss of wellbeing. Slowing down, working a bit less, taking better care of our loved ones, consuming less, staying close to home a bit more. They’re all not such bad ideas. In fact they’re even essential if we value our lives on this planet and those of our children.

And the rocky road in front of us

Ok great. I’m in. But now for the bitter reality. Say you have a business, you have staff to take care of, mouths at home to feed, rent to pay, kids to send to school if you’re lucky. People depend on you. You know things will slow down and you see how that may be a good thing in the long run. But in the short run your concern is keeping your business afloat, to keep your staff employed and keep your customers satisfied. You will be serving fewer customers with fewer resources and it will hurt. What can you do?

There is no one recipe for success

In all modesty, I don’t have the answer here. Getting through a crisis requires perseverance, vision, entrepreneurship, optimism, faith, and a good dose of dumb luck. I’ve done it twice and managed to come out the other end in one piece, with manageable damage to me, my family and the people I employed at the time. But it’s not as if now I have the recipe for staying afloat through crisis times. What I do know is that it has helped me to focus on four things:

What I do know is that it has helped me to focus on four things:

4 things to focus on when the going gets tough

Accessibility: In the exit that will follow the corona crisis, accessibility and availability will be crucial, since it looks like the lockdown will only be resolved partly, and very slowly. A banking client of ours got a compliment from a customer saying: “I like how you’re there for me in these times and help me out with my questions”. But I’m also talking about literal accessibility. Limited amounts of people will be allowed in a certain place. Contact needs to be avoided. Distance needs to be kept. Customers may want to buy from you but they will have no way to get to you. Or they may want to use your service but aren’t allowed certain times of the day. No matter what your situation will be, you will have to design for these things. Maybe you’ll have to partner with competitors who face the same problem. Maybe you’ll have to be much more creative than you’re used to. Maybe you have to reimagine business opportunities from the ground up.

Experience: With fewer customers, you’ll have more time available for each individual one. And customers value a great experience. So make sure you pay attention to your customer’s journey and go out of your way to excel in those stages that matter to them most. Spend time with your customers to make sure you understand why they come to you or why they stay away. Ask them for help in designing experiences that they want to spend their hard earned cash on. Involve them in your business and give them an active role in your survival strategy. See what communities are doing right now for local shops. That’s only because they feel connected to them. Now they have little to spend, they’ll think twice before they spend it and they want to spend it on something that matters to them.

Focus on Value: In times of crisis people are going to spend what little money they have available only on what really matters to them. Open door right? Still, do you really understand what matters most to your customer? What is the essence of your service, the stuff that really helps your customer reach their goals, and what is nice to have but not essential? It might be time to let go of those last bits and really focus. I spoke to a waste collection business who said businesses are cancelling their subscription and taking their waste away themselves. Maybe there’s some business in helping them do that, with the right kind of bags and a helpful collection facility nearby. Design efficient processes where every step is adding value from the customers’ perspective. Help customers get the best bang for their buck. Maybe they can share your product or service, repair it instead of having to buy a new one. Maybe they get a bit more from you to get them through the crisis.

Inclusion: In times of crisis it’s always the needy who suffer most. Low income groups, people with limited access to jobs or healthcare, people at the edge of society. It’s them who need your helping hand. It really pays off to be inclusive and reach out to those who need it. I think, as a business you will have it in you to carry a bit extra on your shoulders. Ethically it is a good thing and it earns you karma points. But those are hard to bank. Luckily it also pays off economically when people see you go out of your way to care for your community and to distribute some of the wealth, even though it’s just a little. Research shows that your ethical stance will indeed increase customer spending, loyalty, and word of mouth.

Design for less and we will get there

These are crazy times and nothing we say about the future is certain to make sense tomorrow. The opposite is also true. No one knows how long this will take and how severe the impact will be. But that there will be an economic downturn is certain. So rather than pondering what the crisis will look like, let’s focus on the things we must do to stay afloat.The four focus areas above have helped me in times of hardship. Now I’m curious to learn what you will do the coming year, to keep serving your customers as if there were no crisis?