The epitome of retail space design has to be an Apple store. From the materials to the lighting, each has design that shows what the company stands for. The result: the highest-selling spaces on the average in the U.S., and perhaps the world. Even Tiffany can't sell as much per square foot as Apple can.

There's a secret to this, as Tim Kobe, CEO and founder of design firm Eight Inc., which has been the designer of Apple's stores for the last 18 years, explained in a conversation with me: experience design. "All design is really for a better human outcome," he said. "[Design should] either achieve a behavior or create a context for behavior that has a purpose." As part of that, the design should also support the brand and its core values.

For example, Kobe talked of creating the Virgin Airlines lounge at Heathrow Airport in England. "There's a certain amount of celebrity associated with Virgin," he said. "The brand is associated with glamour." So, when Eight designed the lounge, which is typically mentioned as one of the top airline lounges in the world, the focus was on the experience people would have.

"People there are typically there a number of hours before their flight," he said. The lounge has many of the services people want. "Most lounges will provide a chair and an electrical outlet. Virgin is more about being in a clubhouse. You're part of a select group of travelers. In addition to having full restaurants, there's a bar area, a private seating area. There's a space for film. In Heathrow you can have a manicure or pedicure, full body treatment." The airline offers an experience that stands above what you see in most airports.

"We always see a much greater business outcome if you focus on the experience," Kobe said. "Eighty percent CEOs believe they're offering a differentiated product and eight percent of consumers believe they're offering a differentiated product." But even when a company develops something distinctive, it often offers that product or service the same way as it always has and the same way competitors do. The result is that they lose much of the advantage that they should have gained.

Changing a space to promote the experience can have an outsized impact on the business. "When we stated with Citibank, they were 57th in customer satisfaction in Japan," Kobe said. The next year, the company took the top rating. "When you create this experience that's focused around things that users find connects them in a way that demonstrates concern about their experience, the benefit is quite dramatic."

But the redesign is far broader than the space alone. Communications, services (including customer service) and products all must come together for improvement in business results. For example, if a company redesigned a store but still had inadequate staffing by employees who were unhappy in their job, the novelty factor of the new design will quickly wear off because the underlying experience doesn't change.

"If you're trying to create a positive relationship with your friend, you're going to let them in the front door, take care to make them comfortable," Kobe said. "You illustrate a positive initiative toward the relationship. We found if we can reframe a problem to support the consumer experience, it test better but it also performs better. The companies end up with better relationships with the people they're doing business with."

In fact, one of the ways Eight makes money is investing in the companies it does work for. When a company begins to focus on this type of design, it likely will be on a trajectory of growth. "We've made more money buying the company's stock when they hire us than fees," Kobe said. "If we had to live on fees alone we'd probably be struggling."

Published on: May 22, 2015
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