17 months ago the board at American retail giant JCPenney decided it needed a change. Sales were sluggish. Consumers were buying more things online and avoiding big box stores.

The board saw the success of the Apple stores and decided to hire Ron Johnson as CEO, the visionary behind the look and feel of one of the world’s best retail experiences. Investors and the market applauded the decisions, and a design focused JCPenney was set to launch. The HBR case study was pretty much going to write itself.

Design to the rescue!

Johnson immediately refocused the brand on simplicity and made a number of moves to improve the in-store experience. Fresh design was on the forefront.

“The department store has a chance to regain its status as the leader in style, the leader in excitement. It will be a period of true innovation for this company.”
- Ron Johnson, January 2012

Within a few months, JCPenney “renamed” themselves jcpenney, launched a new brand, created a redesign store concept and introduced a revised pricing model. The only problem? It didn’t work. Consumers hated the new pricing and were ambivalent at best when it came to the rebrand. Sales plummeted by 25%,depriving the company of over $4.3 billion in lost revenue.

Two weeks ago it was announced that Johnson was on his way out.

Everything looks like a nail

I feel bad for Ron, because it seemed like it was the right strategy. Its probably what I would have done as well. Walking into a JCPenney was a sensory mess; everything was off from a design perspective.

However, the stores didn’t only have a design problem, they had a fundamental business problem that needed to be solved first. Johnson’s Apple stores didn’t succeed only because they were designed well, they worked because they sold iPhones and iPads, the most popular devices in history. Great retail design helped significantly, but the product was the primary driver.

It’s easy to look at the world and notice the terrible user experiences, interfaces and design. Designers are wired to see the details and inherently want to improve the world around them. Because we have a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail.

Peel back a layer

I am not suggesting that great design isn’t effective, quite the contrary. But if the root cause of the issue is deeper, it might be better to start the strategy process a few layers back.

At Versett we try to avoid this type of design-first tunnel vision on our projects as much as possible, but it’s not easy. As designers and developers, our default solution is always to look to design and technology to reach our client’s objectives. And to make it more complicated, it’s usually what the client wants as well. To mitigate this, we try to get to the core problem as early as we can to help create a solution that will make the biggest difference.*

We start by asking questions that try to get to the core of the business. Here are a few examples:

  • “What behaviour will this concept/app/solution replace?”
  • “How have your customers reacted to changes in the past?”
  • “Why would someone want to visit your website or read your newsletter?”
  • “What or who influences the purchaser of your product the most?”

Focusing on these sorts of questions identifies larger issues earlier, leading to much more effective solutions (even if you end up somewhere completely uncharted). It can be challenging at the outset, but the results will almost always be better.

*There are many established systems of getting to the root cause – Toyota’s 5 Why’s system of iterative questioning for example. But remember its not necessarily how you get there – its arriving at a clear and well articulated problem.