Dell discovers design

I’d written in the newsletter about Michael Dell’s "leaked memo" regarding his plans to change Dell’s strategy, particularly their long known focus on the bottom line and cost leadership business model. Yesterday at Adaptive Path’s MX Conference I got a chance to hear Dell’s Manager of Visual Identity and Brand Experience Brookes Protzmann speak. Off the record, the entire presentation – proper ugly corporate powerpoints – smacked of desperation. I hate to have to say this, and keeping my previous thoughts on Dell and Industrial Design in mind, I would prefer to wish Michael Dell the very best in his current avatar of change agent.

However, I believe that strategically, Dell would have been better off if they had not in fact announced their plans and intentions this quickly in response to recent reorganization and thus media buzz, particularly with respect to design. They spoke about their commitment to their design languages, in plural, which alone worries me. Any single brand, such as the one word DELL, would in fact have one design language – any one brand with multiple languages should either be very very clear on what their core identity is and what they stand for, in order to share the control of their brand language interpretation to their customers – OR – stick to one clear design language. Yes, there’s but one example, Apple. In fact, Protzmann mentioned Apple’s design leadership and said that while Dell could never be in the same league as Apple when it came to design, they certainly appreciated the vision, the leadership and the way finding that Apple provided to other PC manufacturers. And here I thought Microsoft with their PC design guidelines – launched recently to a biz buzz – was aspiring to that role. Any wonder Apple’s latest commercials are making Bill unhappy?

So what could Dell have done better, imho?

With the short time frame, the need to be perceived as responding fast, particularly when of late they’d been seen as having ‘missed the bus’ on design, rather than just a talking heads with powerpoint bullet points kind of presentation on Dell’s design strategy [know your audience] to an audience of design strategists [some of whom have worked on projects for Dell] was just off the mark. They had nothing to show us, no sketches or renderings, just bullet points.

A far better tack would have been to conduct a "hack day" type event at Dell’s Singapore and Austin Design Centers – challenge each team to come up with the coolest concept designs for Dell’s future models and then present those to us. As designers or members of the design community, unlike say Wall Street analysts, we would have understood these to be mere concepts, figments, you could say of the design team’s imagination. However – and this is key – we would have walked away impressed with the concepts and the directions, thinking that at least if they’ve not had time to develop and build real products for their sagging markets, they’re thinking about the really cool things that design can do for them. They’re brainstorming and unleashing their creativity. Not their extremely self conscious bullet pointed strategy for using design in order to differentiate.

Shifting from a strategy based on one aspect of operational excellence interpreted as cost leadership to a strategy based on a different aspect of operational excellence such as design may not be as simple or even, as competitively effective, as say, combining their existing excellence in direct sales and supply chain efficiencies with the flexibility to custom build for YOU – which they already do so well – with just a pinch of empathy for the user, becoming human centered you could say, in their orientation thus allowing them to in effect, offer a custom design solution for each cultural market they choose to play in for their local home or retail customer.

Enterprise customers don’t care if you get their culture or not – they perceive themselves to be "a Ford" buying "a Dell" regardless of the actual geographic location of their purchasing office. But to reach the overlooked individual customer, they need to connect one on one in today’s touchy feely social networking and collaborative co-creation goodness online. And online has always been one of Dell’s strengths. How can they now leverage these existing strengths in today’s market place, facing today’s challenges and tomorrow’s constraints?

Hmm, I think I answered the question already. Extreme customization of design across cultures is a disruptive innovation in the production of tangible goods that only a Dell could pull off – restructure their entire product mix based on geographical regions with their regional peculiarities rather than size of customer as currently done. Understand your entire customer base – when was the last time you did a User Satisfaction Survey? Go after your biggest potential markets that offer maximum opportunities for growth. Go the handheld under a $100 route.

Today’s technology means you already have a computer in your hands, now how can you lower the barriers to it’s mass adoption?

Price is just one barrier to enter the bottom of the pyramid. The actual product now needs to be designed within maximum constraints.

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4 Responses to Dell discovers design

  1. csven says:

    The “newsletter” link is dead.

  2. Andrew says:

    I’m not sure I follow your argument here, but I understand you to be suggesting extreme customization as a future design direction for Dell. How would this work given your concern about the “design languageS” comment? Is it possible to have a design language which accommodates radical customization? Can you think of an example?
    I think this attempt by Dell to grab for “design” is a desperation move. That company has made anti-design a strategic advantage for twenty years–it’s culturally incapable of valuing it. These guys are Ford in more ways than you think–this is a company of macho salesmen, who think “design” means something weak and feminine, which is something inherently bad. I’m not kidding: Dell is the fratboy of the technology industry.

  3. Niti Bhan says:

    Csven: thanks, corrected
    The extreme customization thing is an idea I threw out as it evolved while I was writing about the very fact you note so clearly, that Dell never “got design” and this new “getting design” smelt desperate. The questions you raise on the topic however are ones I’ve not thought about and I’d like to take them up into a post and answer them. Look forward to more input from your side,

  4. Jonas says:

    If there is one thing in Dell’s design approach I really apprichiate – it is their unique “purchase experience”. You buy a computer that doesn’t yet exist, and it will be built just for you and your specific needs. This whole thing would be a great thing for the designers at Dell to build on. That would mean telling the only true story of Dell, instead of looking for added-on design languages that wouldn’t mean anything to anybody anyway. As Dell is communicating to customers now – I wouldn’t predict a bright future, especially in times where “there is no reason for bying a PC” since Windows runs perfectly on Mac. Thanks, Jonas

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