four women walking down a street
It's time to stand up for the diversity of individuals in all that we do. PHOTO: Fouquier

The discipline of design has a long history. While aesthetic trends have evolved over the centuries, the underlying principle that we were designing “an experience” remained constant.

Whether it was print advertising or tradeshow signage, design was based on delivering a singular experience to all who consumed it — let us call this homogenous design.

With the exception of personal shopper interactions, homogenous design was the only accepted approach until digital revolutions introduced a new possibility.

Responsive Design: 'A Baby Step'

Just a few years ago, digital design elasticity became a mandate when the growth of smartphones shifted control over information delivery mediums from designers to consumers.

Responsive design was introduced to accommodate multiple device consumption needs across a variety of screen sizes. We no longer had to deliver a singular experience to everyone.

Almost two decades later, it’s clear that responsive design was merely a baby step in design evolution. While it built flexibility into how content is consumed, it did so against only a single factor — screen size. While a step in the right direction, it failed to address the true complexities of building the kind of adaptive experiences that are not only possible but necessary.

Beyond Segmentation

In a traditional segmentation model we might present all women aged 35-50 one set of creative — images and products selected to appeal to their gender and age, and present men of the same age a different set of images and products.

While these segment-based designs added value over purely homogenous displays, they are inherently limited in their ability to capture the buyer’s intent at any moment, because they are limited in the dimensions they capture.

Today we have the capability, and I would argue the obligation, to go beyond its limitations and completely change our thinking from homogeneous design principles to truly heterogeneous — or adaptive — design that accounts for individuals, not simply segments.

It’s time to throw out the last vestiges of homogenous design thinking once and for all. To stand up for the diversity of individuals in all that we do.

Marketers are responsible for protecting a complicated relationship between an organization’s brand and its customers — not only to sell a thing now but also to build a long-term partnership.

To do this, marketers must not only care about revenue, they must care about how well aligned they are to customers’ needs.

The level of caring about customer needs is directly correlated to financial success. For example, in Forrester’s August 2015, “The Revenue Impact of Customer Experience,” a mere one-point gain in the Customer Experience Index was found to be worth $175 million in additional revenue to a wireless provider, $118 million to a luxury automaker and $65 million to an upscale hotel chain.”

Shift thinking from “How much can I sell?” to “How much can I help?” The money will follow.

Marketers know this, but they continue to stumble. Consider the common approach to optimization, testing and targeting.

Marketers using these tools are focused on objectives that are narrower than serving the needs of the customer.

The practices are focused on, “How much did I sell?” and “How much more can I sell?” Sometimes marketers even begin to use language that is unhealthy, such as “I want to influence people to buy this particular item they’ve never considered before.”

This sales-serving philosophy has led us to optimizing design to best averages. With testing, we improve the process for some, but that invariably creates a worse experience for others. For decades, we accepted this as the best we could achieve.

People-to-People Marketing

Yet marketers and consumers would be better off if we thought about optimization as improving communication to individuals, not sales averages. When marketers more effectively communicate, people will take actions they wouldn't have taken otherwise (and will sell more), but it’s because they’ve been shown the value that’s unique to them.

This change of reference is a subtle difference, but an important one. When done well, it reduces dependency on price reduction (the profit killer) as an action trigger.

The risk of lost profitability is not the only challenge faced by marketers who hold on to the idea of striving for the best average experience.

Treating design as a homogeneous task creates extinction risk. Marketing extinction risk is much like the risk we see in the biological world.

Cheetahs, for example, are extremely vulnerable to extinction because shrinking populations have left a very homogenous gene pool. When a single virus hit an Oregon large cat-breeding colony, 50 percent of the Cheetahs died.

Homogeneous populations of shoppers are also subject to higher extinction risk because something that affects some of the audience, affects all of them.

How to Avoid Extinction

Creating singular design endears those that are the average and alienates those that do not respond to it. Over time, customers begin to look alike, as you’ve catered to those that fit the singular design and neglected those that don’t.

If and when a factor changes with the population customers, you risk the extinction of your revenue-generating customers — those that were not responsive to the singular design are long gone.

Our dependence on short-term metrics makes it scary for a CMO to acknowledge; their job is not only to extract as much revenue as possible right now but to grow the brand in a way that is resistant to challenges over time.

While it may seem like an extra burden, as an industry, we’re up for the task. The way forward is not to focus exclusively on the people for whom the basic message is resonating. Ignoring those that don’t but to build a foundation that embraces more diversity through individualism.

We’re no longer trying to create the best single experience for most people; we’re building the best experience for everyone.

On our websites, in our email communications, even in how we arm call center staff and on-site associates, embracing diversity is our new imperative.

It's fundamentally different because we're now embracing the diversity of the audience as a foundation for our technology platform and the entire process of all aspects of marketing, merchandising and design.

It’s time to let go of the centuries-old attachment to creating singular design and move our attention to what is now possible — heterogeneous design.