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A "Starbucks Approach" to Automobile Experience Design

There is an old case study which details a regional train system’s efforts to increase customer satisfaction. The engineers and consultants tasked with this job focused on increasing the efficiency of the train by making efforts at getting from point A to point B faster. Through weeks of study and analysis, the team tasked with the job tweaked various aspects of operations as best as they could, but realized they could only achieve a marginal increase over the current pace of the train. Plus, enacting the changes they found could shave a few minutes off of travel time, but would only be realized with significant investment to institute the proposed changes.

In an incredible moment of understanding a designed experience, the team happened upon the realization that if they improved the on-board experience for travelers they could still increase customer satisfaction, so much so that customers enjoyed their time on the train, and were willing to accept a longer travel time in exchange for a more pleasant experience while on board.

One company with an intrinsic mastery of the designed experience is Starbucks. CEO Howard Schultz flipped the “in and out” convenience-store model of purchasing a cup of coffee on its head. The Starbucks experience has been carefully curated by Schultz for more than 40 years to elicit the romance of European espresso-bars. The smells of coffee beans, the soft music, dim lighting and large comfortable seats are part of a curated design experience which invite guests to stay. The Starbucks experience is one where time slows down. When hot breakfast sandwiches that Starbucks sold competed in aroma with the smell of coffee, Starbucks management fixed the problem which sent mixed olfactory and sensory messages to guests. Starbucks baristas have even been asked to reduce the number of drinks they make at one time, thereby slowing the process down even further, to focus on quality and freshness of their crafted drinks. Customers and stakeholders in the company are both rewarded by this approach.

As we approach the advent of driverless cars, more of us will become “back seat” passengers – or commuters as on the regional rail system. There will be degrees of choice in terms of driver engagement which can be dialed in as a part of the designed experience. Increasingly the performance breakthroughs that modern technology and engineering excellence can squeeze out become a part of a performance driving strata whose benefits cannot be enjoyed on public roads under normal conditions. The challenge will become, how can we increase every occupant's enjoyment while in the vehicle?

Designers are the stewards of sensory design. Curation of designed experiences has an immediate impact on consumers and underscores the fact that despite titles, all employees of a company are in the business of customer service and satisfaction.

Driver engagement/driving performance is one lever to pull, but taking a page from the Starbucks playbook, a focus on slowing time down and curating sensory experiences that are designed to emotionally connect and provide pleasure to customers will provide relevance to a generation of consumers who are increasingly valuing experiences over objects.

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