old kid's toy Simon, with light up quadrants
PHOTO: debaird

A specific strength of the Toyota culture is to come up with innovative ways to visualize problems. This is a particularly critical skill when it comes to digital because digital is a reduced sense environment. It’s very hard to get a "feel" for digital problems. Usually, everything is mediated through a small, cold screen.

Toyota understands that how you see the problem can have a major impact on how you feel about and react to the problem. You need to be able to present data, analytics, metrics, in a way that gets people to care, that makes people feel responsible, and most importantly makes people want to act on the data. You can’t make change if you don’t change behavior.

Toyota recognized that digital metrics in particular are very problematic. It’s very difficult to understand what traditional digital metrics are telling you. Visitors, repeat visitors, bounce rates, page views, time on page — they could reflect something good or something bad. A repeat visitor could be back at your website because they couldn’t find what they were looking for on their previous visit. We simply don’t know. These volume-based metrics tend to encourage worst practice — a cult of volume.

To get quality metrics, Toyota realized you had to focus more on outcomes, on the experience the customer is having. They knew they needed a way to visualize this experience so that Toyota employees would feel empathy for the customer’s experience. They came up with a very interesting concept, a physical object, a UFO-type orb that they place in their headquarters office in Brussels and that they call Simon.

Simon is hooked up to the key performance metrics for digital. When everything is well, Simon is lit up with a white light. If, however, a page on a Toyota website loads slower that its target time, then Simon will begin to get red. The more bugs, the more errors, the slower the website becomes, the redder Simon becomes. This is amazing. Simon helps develop empathy for the customer experience. Staff don’t like to see Simon getting red. In digital, there is an empathy gap between those who work in digital and those who use the websites and apps. We must bridge that gap.

“The problem that you often have with digital is that it’s perceived as very complicated, and when you start to explain, you’re losing all of the people,” said Karen Peeters, general manager for Omni Channel Management at Toyota Europe. “But by having a device like this, we can very easily explain what it stands for, so it makes it much more accessible. We had info sessions — even with our President and CEO — explaining what this thing was doing. Simon, people remember it.”

Toyota people don’t simply remember Simon. They empathize when Simon turns red. What’s wrong with Simon? The problem becomes more real, and as a result the problem gets solved a lot faster. One of the most important things you can do as a digital designer is to help visualize the experience that the people who are using your product are having, and bring that visualization into as many parts and sections of your organization as possible in an empathetic way. We need innovative ideas like Simon to create a sense of what is actually happening in digital-land. Because in most digital teams, we actually don’t know what is actually happening out there in the world of use, and this is a real Achilles heel of digital.