How Design and Technology Create Customer Experiences that Shift Our Culture

It is without a doubt that today’s hottest companies – the likes of Google, Apple, Uber and Airbnb – have risen to their status because of the way they deliver one thing well: customer experience.

Whether it’s through technology, or design, or both – they design an experience that is simple, accessible and convenient for users that the experience of dealing with the products created by these companies become the product itself.

Why do these companies prevail while others lag?

I have a few reasons in mind:

Good design elevates workaday, ordinary human experiences. Day to day life is inherently boring and tedious. Waking up to go through a set of routines to prepare yourself for the day, the logistics of transit to get to your destination, the hours spent at work being pulled in seemingly endless meetings and sitting down for hours to actually do work, then after work it’s a charade of figuring out how to best unwind, where to go for happy hour, only to come back home and do a set of routines again to prepare yourself for bed… needless to say, there’s nothing special about it.

Until, of course, you believe there is. And these companies are in the business of designing that quality of specialness that makes our days less tedious. Uber helps you grab a car with a few taps on a phone. Airbnb helps you book interesting lodging that stray away from conventional, monotonous hotel accommodations. Apple designs products that feel good to use that doing work on your computer or phone becomes easy, so you can be more productive. Google makes looking for things – even the most obscure, under wraps, seemingly hidden information – discoverable online in a fool-proof way.

This is why we are drawn to these companies. They introduce something so simple – design, access, technology – and it changes our experience completely.

Technology is a crucial aspect of delivering new experiences. Technology allows us to do many things. One of its most useful feature is the way it connects things, people, entities. Whether it’s chatting with friends on Skype of Telegram, or receiving promos from in-app notifications, or a reminder to track expenses or calories for the day – technology is an important channel to deliver new information and product features, creating new experiences for the user who’s always on mobile nowadays. Companies who use technology are not only able to deliver products and communications well, but they also do so with such effectiveness. Particularly when these products and communications need to be delivered at scale to many, many digital users. Today’s successful companies have cracked the code to engage their customers, and it starts with communication.

Designing experiences with technology becomes part of the brand promise. Decades ago, who could’ve ever dreamt that you can book someone else’s car with a few clicks on a mobile phone? Who could’ve thought that you’ll find your grade school classmates class online especially if you’ve lost touch with them since you went to school abroad? Or to hire a decent stranger to deliver the standard items on your grocery list? But these experiences are now the new norm. And these ideas started in someone’s mind, but was designed, built and launched via technology. These are the kinds of ideas that will win in the digital age – the kind of concepts that introduce interesting experiences, that are executed well harnessing the power of technology – and the culmination of these become the brand promise. The consumer marketplace is cluttered with so many brands to choose from, and most customers can’t differentiate anymore what makes a good brand better than the other. Brands have become commodity, and to respond means a journey back to the essence of a brand – this means creating experiences that communicate what the brand is about – its core values, personality, positioning, that special thing it brings forth that is different from the rest. The very method that brands engage with customers now is a reflection of the brand. The medium is the message, if you will. And that medium is now technology-driven.

What fascinates me about these companies is not only how they use design and technology to create delightful experiences, but they also impact our lives and thus, influence culture. And as they influence culture, they shift it. And that shift in turn permeates many things – how we perceive the world, what new products companies make in the future, what products become available, what becomes important to us, what new policies are created.

Imagine if you could develop a simple concept, build it into a product, deliver it to people, change lives, and thus change society in the process? That is powerful.

On Beauty and Transcendence

I was reflecting on this topic lately, one that is close to my heart as someone who appreciates it deeply through art, music, film and cultural production. I like to surround myself with all things beautiful- environment, people, products, ways of living.

But I must define what beauty is for me in order to communicate why I am drawn to it.

Beauty for me is creation, the outcome of an often stressful, frustrating process of creating something out of nothing. When I focus on a piece of art in a museum, I reflect on what it must’ve taken the artist– in terms of time, energy, worldview and courage — to produce something that is to be admired by us spectators. Bringing about something new, whether art, product or life, is beautiful for me because they display creation, even if the process is not easily evident in the completed form. It represents effort and time, and truly beautifully crafted products are high quality because it has a combination of both. Witnessing the act of creating, say in a crafts workshop or an artist studio, is even more beautiful. I am further moved when I meet an artist immersed in his or her craft through doing or speaking.

Beauty is also a kind of radiance that emanates from the object – whether it be a bubbly personality of a friend or the grandeur of a scenic view.

We are drawn to beauty, not always because of its superficial, transient, or monetary value, but because of its transcendental power that connects us to the higher expression of ourselves: us, mere mortals, who have the opportunity to witness and the ability to appreciate that which is beautiful.

Recently, I’ve been introduced to another facet of the power of beauty in our lives. I came across the book, “The Evidential Power of Beauty” by Thomas Dubay, through a podcast by young Catholic priests in Colorado discussing beauty as a pilgrimage, or journey. Even if I knew that beauty can be a verb, as in my earlier explanation of beauty being the process and product of creation, it struck me that beauty can be also be described as a journey. In this case, it is the journey to God, the inflection point from the seemingly opposing fields of study toward the same destination: the divine.

“The acute experience of great beauty readily evokes a nameless yearning for something more than earth can offer. Elegant splendor reawakens our spirit’s aching need for the infinite, a hunger for more than matter can provide.”

To continue appreciating beauty, we must pay more attention to areas that lift our spirits, calm us down, and acknowledge that transcendence imparts us a kind of power: to inspire us to seek bigger dreams toward which we hone our abilities, and to believe in something greater than ourselves.

Doing these might just manifest more beauty in our lives.

Lessons from 9 months of splitting time between home and abroad

I have been quiet here about my travel experiences after my big move to Asia. But I’ve written religiously about my adventures, albeit in private channels. Here are the lessons I uncovered while living in Southeast Asia in the past 9 months.

1. Moving is hard.

Nothing is new here. I was fully aware of the difficulties in moving and I’ve mentioned this before I physically moved. But the challenges I encountered while moving is nothing like I anticipated. I’m not new to moving, in fact, many will consider me an expert in travel due to my constant jetsetting (mostly fun, but not without stress). Still, moving introduces a new set of existential questions, emotions, and experiences that are rewarding to have gone through in hindsight, but painful to endure.

2. It forces you constantly shift your perspective.

When you’re new to travel, it’s exhilarating. There are so many adventures to be had, so many varied sights to discover, so many new people to meet. It’s mostly a blissful experience as you’re traveling. Yet if you do it constantly, a feeling of unsettledness ensues. It’s uncomfortable at first, but then you get used to it. And you realize that getting used to it doesn’t make it easier. While it introduces you to entertain new ways of thinking and helps you discover new ideas, which keeps you sharp, you also get used to movement as a survival mechanism. Since it’s something you must do, it becomes something you expect.

3. You get antsy when you’re still.

The constant movement excites you, and helps with dream big. When a plane takes off, it reintroduces you to the horizon and the sky, which helps with dreaming up new things. You get used to bouncing off ideas and plans not just professionally (innovation!) but personally as well (ie. planning parties with friends) and not completing them because you’re not in one place for long stretches of time.

4. Friendships are put on hold, even temporarily.

We tend to create groups of friends in places where we spend a lot of time. So when we live in two places at the same time, we create two groups of friends (and multiple sub-groups of these friends), one at home, and another in the place where you spend a lot of time. When I’m in LA, I hang out and catch up with people from LA. When I’m in Manila, I hang out and catch up with people from Manila. Of course, I keep in touch with both groups even when I’m in the other location, but I realize it’s hard to jive remotely with local culture. When I’m in LA, I’m completely Angeleno, and it’s hard to ride with jokes and stories of people from Manila, when I’m not there. When I’m in Manila, it’s hard to be on top of LA trends and culture.

This is something I’m trying to improve: to represent who I am fully no matter where I am, and uphold the activities and thinking that define myself, and not be susceptible to changes in the environment too much. This reminds me of the existential question I’ve asked myself so many times: how do I adapt to the environment I’m in (to connect with locals) while fully being who I am (which may introduces differences)?

5. You become a more dynamic person.

In spite of the difficulties of traveling across places, the ultimate reward is you become a more aware and global. You may experience the stress of cultural acculturation, and there are times when you think you’re losing a part of yourself for the sake of fitting in, in order to survive. But really, you’re growing into a new kind of person– one that is culturally sensitive, curious and sharp– even if it’s hard to realize it while waiting in airports or being in transit.

Even if it feels like losing yourself, you don’t lose yourself, you are still who you define yourself as. Your definition of yourself is something that no one can take away from you. I believe that one’s definition of identity does not shrink. It expands as you gain new experiences and become immersed in new environments.

People always ask me, after having lived exactly the same amount of time in the US and Asia, if I’m more American or Asian. And I always answer: I’m not half of one or the other, in fact, I’m whole of both.

The Promise of Mobile Technology

It’s 2016. Have we figured out mobile yet?

Mobile has been all the rage as far as I can remember. I’m an avid mobile user, getting my first phone as a 12-year-old living in Asia. Back then, it was a convenient tool for communication, but the mobile industry has since exploded with the invention of the iPhone, creating an unprecedented number of people around the world who are now connected via mobile connectivity.

When I started working in agency land, I began to grasp how much of a game changer it has become. It is now an avenue to consume content, effectively becoming a media vehicle, and an impactful one at that – it has the ability to connect directly and personally with the consumer. The way we treat our phones is an extension of our body, and with this deeply personal relationship with a device, it opens a new wave of opportunities for content creators, brands, marketers, people to connect with each other.

As previously unconnected people adopt mobile rapidly, and as mobile users deepen their knowledge and interaction with their device– constantly updating apps and upgrading to new phones– mobile is here to stay. We’ve established that it has changed the way we communicate. But now it is also changing the way we interact with the world: it helps us locate where things, places and people are; it helps us participate with a wide network of connected users through the web; and it is changing the way we make purchases as consumers.

Mobile technology has brought about new industries and companies that didn’t exist before: mobile app startups, fintech, mobile media buying, to name a few.

What new applications of mobile phones can be discovered? What other uses of mobile phones can be uncovered?

When we think about innovation, we tend to begin our forward outlook from the most technologically advanced application to what the future could potentially bring. But we also need to be reminded of how technology looks in a different environment.

It looks very different in other contexts. For example, in emerging countries, mobile phone usage is high, but most of those who own mobile phones have feature phones and not smart phones. Smartphones are still cost-prohibitive, but this is changing as less expensive models are introduced. Not to mention the even bigger issue: there’s still a lot of people who are unconnected.

So, as professionals in highly advanced industries who think about technology innovation, we should also think about the impact of mobile technology on society as a whole–across different places and socioeconomic backgrounds– and perhaps it is not only in the most advanced places nor among the most sophisticated users can we innovate. But also nurture hope in surfacing a niche right under our noses that could potentially change lives.

 

What Makes a Good Strategist?

Having been in the professional world for 7 years, I’ve encountered so many bright minds in business strategy and experienced my fair share of missteps common among those in early career stages. Working in media kept me challenged because we operated as consulting partners with our clients, advising them how to best plan their marketing budgets and maximize their presence in the eyes of their customers.

Now, my current role puts me right in the heart of strategy, working on initiatives supported by a corporate strategy office. My media experience is somewhat of an outlier compared to my peers; there is an outdated notion in business circles outside of marketing that our field is more fluff than science. Whereas my former peer group of marketing professionals would vehemently disagree, since most of them have technical, if not scientific, backgrounds.

So having been part of teams responsible for developing marketing strategy for growing brand portfolios valued in the multibillions, and seeing how strategy is developed in a corporate strategy office, here are my thoughts on what makes a good strategist.

Good strategists are…

  • able to translate complex strategy into a simple business objective
  • those who focus on a (most often, singular) business objective
  • those who are able to provide a roadmap from strategy to tactics, guiding the team toward execution
  • able to deal with ambiguity because they know they have it in them to course correct
  • those who never let the competition out of his mind
  • decisive, but also looks for flexible avenues if made necessary
  • those who are open to unexpected outcomes
  • those who possess a compass in his mind, not a GPS, since strategy is rarely prescriptive or repeatable (no two circumstances are ever identical)
  • those who can think 10 steps ahead
  • those who has a talent for engaging people and hiring them fast; operating in real time is critical
  • those who can draw up a map for others when most people only see a tangled web of barriers, process, and politics