Deeper than Design: What a calendar can teach us about building a better business
Deeper than Design is a new series approaching simple, common web design and development concepts and trends from the perspective that what we create ignites change, good or bad. How does what you make affect the greater whole? So much of our work is in the details, but so many of the results of that work happen on a much larger scale. The question is…are we designing with that knowledge in mind? It’s time we started taking ownership. It’s time we started designing again for the human, not for business. Here’s the first article in the series, “What a calendar can teach us about building a better business.”
I’ve been following the shutdown of what was once known as Sunrise Calendar since the sad announcement was made. A favorite in the tech community – and of mine – for its ease of use and functionalities made the demise quite salient. Recently, a new company called Kin Calendar has been (thankfully) creating an alternative. In fact, it may even be better.
“Why would they do that? Aren’t there enough calendars out there?”
Because they recognized the beauty and, more importantly, the purpose of a truly functional calendar in one’s life. It’s why everyone was so obsessed with Sunrise; it met actual needs. Now, I’m not going to sit here and talk about a new app. You can go here for that. What we can do, however, is understand how functional design and development of something like Sunrise or your own website’s calendar can not only make-or-break your business, but do something so few organizations today actually do: make a true difference in someone’s life (not just a dollar).
A client of mine is currently in the process of redesigning their website. This organization – a museum – has spent their first two years of business establishing awareness and trying to understand their guests’ true needs. In our root cause analysis and web discovery process, we recognized a few things. One of the top priorities became clear almost immediately: the importance of a functional calendar. Cultural institutions play a major role in the lives of their community members. They become a gathering place, a source of entertainment, and eventually, a part of the community’s identity. As you can imagine, two years of life has also created two years of additional programming and events they could have never imagined from the beginning. Over the course of these efforts they also – unintentionally – created a little chaos.
The simple calendar iteration on version one was more than enough to work for the first few months. But due to lack of foresight and unforeseen demand, they didn’t build in the ability to grow their functionality from the get-go. What is now the most valuable aspect of the museum’s business – programming – has also become the one of the biggest pain points for their guests. People show up at the wrong times, buy the wrong tickets, and think one event or exhibit is actually another. If the guest does show up to the right one, the value they experience is immense and often revered; the content is amazing. It’s why the museum focused so much on programming. It was meant to create value in people’s lives and make the world a little less confusing. Unfortunately, the opposite began to happen. For the guests, an entire day can be ruined by misrepresentation or absence of information. A family visit can go from exciting and full-of-anticipation to full-of-disappointment. This is no good for the museum or those attending. As you can imagine, version two of the site will include not only a robust calendar from the beginning but also one with functionality that can change as the need does.
The lesson here is much deeper than just building something with the end goal in mind though (because let’s be honest…when can we ever predict the ending?). We can never fully know what our customers need at any given time. Their needs are always changing, as is any organization’s. It’s part of life. The only thing constant is change, right? So often we want to come out the door with everything figured out. Perfect, if possible. But true perfection looks like the opposite of what we think it does. Our world, natural or unnatural, wasn’t built perfect. It was built adaptable.
We may not be perfect, but what we can do is create a process of development and bring our guests – customers, whatever you want to call them – along for the ride instead of making assumptions from either side of the fence. We can collectively buy into a system that allows for constant, collaborative change. We can create a process in which we can constantly determine what “change” needs to actually look like based on both customer and organizational need, not just our speculations. I know…change is scary. But it doesn’t have to be, and many of us know that experience.
It’s why I love WordPress and its community. I don’t – as a designer – have to develop everything, and therefore my options are somewhat limitless. Instead of having to get everything right from the get-go, I can stage out a plan that accommodates change. What’s important today may no longer be important tomorrow. Plus…when have your customers ever really known their actual needs? I can barely even decide what I want for breakfast in the morning.
This is our true job as businesses: “We must change with our clients to help them understand the problem so we can solve it together. ”
But in order for this joint process to work, it’s critical you don’t forget to tell your customers what’s happening. So often we are also too focused on being “the first” or “the only one” to solve the problem that we lose sight of what we intended on solving in the first place. And this can lead us to making decisions that don’t take the whole picture into account. To avoid this, we must listen and purposefully engage with customers about the issues that matter, not the ones that sound the best.
For example, when the museum built their first website, it was created to be completely proprietary. Why? Because we just love to own stuff, and they were pretty used to being first-to-market in a lot of ways. They, like most of us, wanted something no-one else had because it was perceived to be a better option. I’ll admit, I was a large part of that decision-making process. Since then, I’ve learned when we build something no-one else has, or even understands, we limit the help we can receive. And that limits what we can do for our customers.
But even better than that is what they can teach and do for us. If the museum had built something less proprietary so early on and understood that the first years of business equal constant change, perhaps they’d be in a different situation. Perhaps instead of confusing people, they could have – as they’ve known for almost a year-and-a-half – invested a little time in making a change that would have not only added value to their guests’ lives, but their own well-being. Mistakes are critical for this reason. I learned an invaluable lesson and the net effects of small, uninsightful decisions. Without attention to the process and only focusing on the result, I did not account for the inevitable change to both customer and organization. I made an uninformed decision.
It’s why people loved Sunrise Calendar. They built a system, not a product. They built a process, not a result. They understood the ever-changing needs of their customers and the ACTUAL pain points people faced when figuring out how to plan their crazy days. And then they talked to the community about it. People ran to them – at least I sure did. Perhaps a lot even weeped – I sure did – when they decided to shut down. Yet to accomplish all of this, they didn’t have to reinvent every wheel to do it. Heck, I bet they even stole some ideas. All in the name of building better relationships with customers to better serve everyone’s needs.
At the end of the day, a calendar is still just a calendar. A tool in a crowd of resources to help us move through our lives a little more effectively and hopefully with a little bit of joy. Businesses who solely focus on being “the best” or “the coolest” will start to lose their traction when “what’s best” or “what’s coolest” changes. Sometimes you don’t have to be the most different or proprietary from the get-go. “Sometimes you don’t have to be first. Sometimes, you just have to be you. ” And sometimes that requires change. What matters most in the end is that you asked yourself first not what should I build, but instead why should I build it and who for? And heck…maybe even ask your customers. They may have the best answer.
- Don’t make speculations about customer needs. Include them in the process. They don’t have to make the decisions, but you should constantly be getting their feedback.
- Never assume the customer is always right, because guess what? They’re not. Sometimes you do know better. “Always make informed decisions but never silence your gut. It’s what got you here. ”
- It’s okay to change. Often what we needed yesterday isn’t what we need today. Build change into your process and tools so it makes it easier to do. For example, not everything has to be proprietary and especially at the beginning. Sometimes that calendar plugin works just fine until you can develop or find a more appropriate solution. To build change into your process, create “checkpoints” along the way that force you to reconsider your path, gather feedback, and make adjustments.
- Stop sweating everything. You’re allowed to make mistakes, you just have to tell your customers what’s going on. This is why constant communication and updates are great ways to build familiarity and rapport with your customers. Try a beta blog or “we’re in this together” email campaign. Humans respond more to empathy and vulnerability – admitting our mistakes – than they do being sold or promoted to. Let’s not deny human nature where we don’t need to, eh?
- You don’t have to always be the first or the best, but you do have to care. This is a – very odd – mistake many organizations make down the road. The more obsessed you become with results (like profit), the more you tend to stop serving your customers in the way that is healthiest for both parties; yes, this includes you and your team. Focus more on the process of solving problems and improving that process than what you get out of it. When you do this, you’ll see results you could have never imagined.
- Calendars are still important.
Every time I learn something new, I always try and look back to see what I could have done better in previous situations if I had this new information. No regrets, just reflection. Have you ever been in a situation where you felt the need to get your wireframes or a design right the first time? Or pick the right plugin from the get go? What time or pain could you have saved yourself or a client by not trying to get things perfect out the door? We encourage you to take a moment to reflect on previous projects and look for ways you could have approached them differently, knowing the needs of your solution (like a calendar) would inevitably change. And please share with us! We always have things to learn from each other.