Posts Tagged ‘marketing’

The Brand Gap

A couple of months ago, a colleague asked me what branding was. I remember fumbling to find the right definition, and said something like, it’s the whole experience or impression you get when you recall the name of a company, organization or a person. It’s something that you can guide but it is ultimately outside your control, and in the hand of your customers.

In a serendipitous discovery, I found on Slideshare a beautiful presentation entitled The Brand Gap on clarifying what branding is, and the gap that exists between business strategy and design.

Helio’s Blue Ocean

Helio Ocean

Helio’s Ocean handset

I spent last week in Los Angeles on a project with Helio. Helio is an MVNO, which is a fancy way of saying they are a mobile phone operator that leases their network, in their case, from Sprint. They were started in early 2005 as a joint venture between Earthlink and SKTelecom, the largest mobile phone operator in Korea, offering service in the US in May 2006. They have exclusive phones, of which the Ocean is their current flagship. You can read more about the Ocean’s development in May 2007 issue of MIT’s Tech Review (requires free registration).

I’ve had a chance to test out their Ocean handset and I must say I am impressed:


  • Full QWERTY Keyboard: writing an email is actually a pleasant experience considering it’s a phone
  • Messaging and Email Integration: I was using AIM and Gmail, and every time I got a message or email the phone alerts me and it’s one click to view and start my reply.
  • GPS Navigation: Helio was apparently the first to offer Google Maps with GPS.


  • It’s a little bulky.
  • No full HTML browsing: iPhone has set the bar pretty high.
  • Some of its most useful services are hidden under menus or need to be downloaded.
Helio Ocean

Despite its shortcomings, the Ocean has been getting some incredible free press and marketing from the tech community doing side-by-side comparisons with the iPhone. The fact that it is compared at all is impressive.

This started me thinking, in the light of the Ocean and iPhone and a landslide of new cell phones out there, what do consumers now expect from a cell phone? My personal wishlist would look something like this:

  • Full HTML browsing (more for info than interaction)
  • Large screen (I am still on the fence about touch screens)
  • QWERTY keypad (now that I’ve experienced Ocean’s keypad, I can’t go back)
  • Kickass Contacts list (in the end the phone is all about staying in touch)
  • Long battery life (don’t we all need it?)
  • Wi-Fi (for faster, cheaper data downloads and free calls)

In a conversation with a friend who lives in LA and used to work for McKinsey, this last point – free calling through wi-fi, we realized is a disruptive innovation. It is something that could revolutionize the whole mobile phone business. It is only a matter of time that wi-fi (or some better data communications infrastructure) will be widely available. Cities are considering providing free wi-fi to their inhabitants. Google has big plans. If this is so, then services like Skype will make the business model of charging for call service obsolete.

Westwood Blvd looking towards Helio House

In this scenario, it is operators like Helio who have not sunk billions in the network infrastructure that have most to gain. If they can offer a phone that seamlessly switches between wi-fi and the cell network, then the traditional revenue structure of mobile phone operators who charge for the use of their pipes, in the form of usage minutes, data transfer and service fees will have to be rethought. It’s like Apple’s iTunes and the music industry. Once the transfer of music shifted from physical media to digital, the music industry that had the traditional models of charging for the sales of CD could not move fast enough to change and had to relinquish control over distribution to operations like Apple’s iTunes. The shift is only a matter of time – but it seems like the established mobile operators are trying get as much mileage as possible and no-one wants to be the first to rock the revenue boat. I think Helio should do it. They have nothing to lose and in the best position to find what the new revenue model should be.

Fox Plaze (AKA Nakatomi Tower from Die Hard I)

I wish I could have spent more time checking out LA, but I just had to settle for a trip to In-n-Out Burger, and a hotel next to the Fox Plaza (AKA Nakatomi Tower), the site of the first Die Hard movie.

Buying a Microwave and the Conspiracy of Design

I went to buy a microwave the other day. I thought it would be simple. But then is anything really simple these days? I had three factors I decided to consider: Price, Design and Usability.

Price:  A microwave is an everyday appliance and hence I wanted it to be cheap. The cheaper the better.

Design: I wanted a microwave with a simple design. No Cuisinart stainless-steel. Just something I could bear to look at in the kitchen.

Usability: I think most of the time I use only 3 features on a microwave. 1) For heating small things up I usually guess 20 seconds and if it’s not heated I try another 20 seconds. Heating something has never been a precise science ever for me. No one measures the mass of a slice of frozen pizza from last night. 2) Sometime I heat larger things which I guess in 1 minute increments. 3) I also heat the occasional popcorn and frozen meal. Both have instructions and I need a way to input precise timing.

So why is it so hard to find something that fits those things. When I find something that is simple, it’s totally unusable. Why do cheap things have to have really ugly design? What was suspiciously annoying was the fact that this was the same case with all the major Korean brands.

In the end, as it usually is, it is a trade-off. Either pay dearly for something that is unusable, or pay for something that is moderately usuable, cheap but ugly. Most Korean would choose the more expensive and better designed product over the more usable one. I am finding out that Korean generally have a strange bias towards things that are “pretty” (which isn’t always the same as “well-designed”). I have overheard conversations at work where people say, “I don’t use that [website, phone etc] because it isn’t pretty”, and not because it is unusable. People here are more forgiving if it is pretty. Don Norman agrees that people generally perceive attractive things to work better.

[A]lthough poor design is never excusable, when people are in a relaxed situation, the pleasant, pleasurable aspects of the design will make them more tolerant of difficulties and problems in the interface.

Product designers in Korea must know this, and they must work with the marketing department to make sure that the products that are at the lower end of the price scale look ugly so that people don’t buy it and buy the product that is more expensive not because of any added functionality or production cost, but simply priced higher over the “ugly one.”

Bruce Tognazzini observed something similar when he wrote:

What a strange situation. You take a mediocre product and rework the design to make it better. Your design is a success, by any reasonable measure, but the resulting new release is actually worse. You redouble your efforts and matters become untenable. It doesn’t matter how brilliant and effective your designs, the more they improve the product, the less usable the product becomes.

The clean design but expensive and unusable
The ugly but cheap and usable

What people consider “pretty” is culturally subjective. What one culture considers cute and pretty, another culture considers childish. Cyworld as wildly popular social networking site made this mistake when they launched in the US, maintaining their “pretty” aesthetic which was part of their success in Korea. This alienated a lot of the teen, youth audience who viewed Cyworlds avatars and wallpaper to be more fit for a pre-teen audience. Now they have more photos and less “prettiness”. This is why it is acceptable for grown adult women to don Hello Kitty accessories in much of East Asia whereas it will be viewed as plain freaky in the much of the US or Europe.

In the end, I settled for the  cheap and ugly microwave. For better or worse, the usability professional in me prevailed.