East Coast vs. West Coast, and Finding the Balance Within

February 03, 2015 Kalev Peekna

It’s almost a cliché: In American culture, there’s a world of difference in the thinking between the East Coast and the West Coast. OK, so it’s definitely a cliché – but sometimes this difference is hard to ignore. The story of East and West is one of the crackling electricity of Times Square versus the rolling vineyards of Napa Valley…

East Coast vs. West Coast

Design is no exception.
In recent years, we’ve observed the rise of two dominant theories of design–an East Coast approach and a West Coast approach–and at the One North Experience Lab, I explored how drawing elements from each allow you to focus on both brand and user to deliver the optimal customer experience.

East Coast design can be thought of as the “Madison Avenue” school of thought: the glossy, brand-centric, design-centric approach that starts with core concepts about identity and product, and seeks out the best expression of those ideas through a variety of media.

The West Coast approach is different. It’s marked by user-centric, human-centric thinking that focuses on the customer. It begins with what the user/customer needs, and introduces brand concepts as a solution to those needs. In many ways, this approach arose in opposition to East Coast design, so it often aims deliberately to overturn our traditional understanding of the design process.

Brand-Centric Design
Brand-centric design starts and ends with the brand. It follows a fundamentally creative process that focuses on visual exploration of core brand concepts. It tends to align well to traditional marketing practices, targeting outcomes like impressions, differentiation and positioning. Its strengths include tight alignment across media or channels, great looking products and strong differentiation. When people look at the best examples of brand-centric design, they immediately develop a sense of who the company is and what it’s all about.

BUT: Brand-centric marketing very often looks like an ad – which is a reflection of its origin, but carries certain downsides. Ads are great at getting our attention, but as pre-digital artifacts, ads don’t do anything. When ad-like designs are encountered in a digital context, the effect is one of a great impression followed by almost immediate futility. The reason to be there is unclear; the reason to engage is unclear; the measurable outcomes are unclear.

User-Centric Design
User-centric design, on the other hand, starts and ends with the customer: what he or she wants, and how he or she wants to do it. It follows a product design process borrowed from software and industrial design traditions. It values simplicity: clean sightlines, ease of use and clear actions. It tends to think in terms of releases: agile, smaller releases in shorter iterations, where the “product” is never quite “finished.” In the best examples, user-centric design offers impeccable clarity of intent: users know what to do, and brands know exactly what to measure.

BUT: User-centric design has a strong tendency to market features, not the benefits. It’s often highly informational about what it offers, but strangely silent about why its offering exists – the core purpose that lies at the heart of a great brand. When multiple user-centric designs seek out the same set of users/customers, you often see repetition of similar patterns, elements and imagery – to the point where you can’t really differentiate one competitor from another.

So where’s the balance?
Go too hard to one side and you’re like a bad dinner guest: either you’re talking too much about yourself, or you’re not contributing to the fun. Either way, you’re a bore. The key to taking the best from both traditions is to find the right balance between brand and user.

Why is the balance important? It’s not really about avoiding the pitfalls mentioned above; conceivably, a smart designer could correct small errors without abandoning her or his initial mindset. Leaving the East Coast and West Coast approaches in favor of a balance is the only reliable way to identify the shared ground between brand and user – and shared ground is the critical underpinning of all good relationships.

If you focus simultaneously on both brand and user, then ultimately you focus on the relationship.

A few examples to help you find this balance:

  • Create user personas that allow you to understand where your goals and the customer’s overlap. Base the persona description on data, not imagination, and formulate a clear statement that outlines both the customer’s and your needs.
  • Tap into your customer’s needs by asking them. It can be as simple as conducting five to eight customer interviews to gain qualitative insights, and 20 respondents for quantitative data. With goals clearly stated, map overlap is a way that indicates clear opportunities and strategies.
  • Build scenarios — a workflow of steps that show how a shared need can be met. This is the creative framework behind all interaction design. The key to adding balance to a scenario is to think about why users want to start interactions with you, and how you want them to finish.
  • Many agency creative types passionately adhere to their “process”—their East Coast or West Coast school of thought. But by finding the balance where brand-centric and user-centric overlap, that blend of east and west, we can build powerful relationships with our customers.

Curious about what else we learned at #1NLab14 last year? Watch all the session videos from the event, and stay tuned for more session recaps to come.

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Kalev Peekna Managing Director, Chief Strategist

Kalev Peekna is the Chief Strategist at One North, leading the Digital Strategy team. He brings a cross-platform, user-focused approach to innovations in brand development, design, data analysis and technology, and helps clients apply those innovations to their strategic aims.

  • If I were a vegetable: I would be broccoli. Because I have always wanted someone to call me “cruciferous.” 
  • Most unusual job: Cocktail bartender at a Cabaret

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