Why Experience Design is Marketing Gold

Referrals are the Lifeblood of Any Business

Jeff Davidson
Jun 5 · 5 min read
Human’s evolved to bear and share experiences.

Contrary to popular opinion, businesses are not successful because of their sales, marketing, human resources, advertising, brand, or sophisticated acquisition strategies—they are successful because their product or service is awesome, and the palpable experience it provides causes it to spread virally requiring a minimum investment in all of these former departments. Moreover, great products market themselves, and this is why good experience/product design is absolute marketing gasoline—one of the best outside investments a company can make. The biggest reason why product design is such a great investment is that it adds to the perceived, functional, experiential, and mnemonic value of the good or service. This hits all levels of the consumer journey and ultimately leads to exponential growth propagated by word-of-mouth referrals. These great experiences also lead to lasting memories which is critical when trying to get traction.

The Misunderstanding

Most business books are written about management, strategy, marketing, and advertising, but very few actually talk about the science and process of conceptualizing, building, and designing great products. That’s probably in part because big ‘successes’ are somewhat of a mystery. When we hold a gadget or use an application, the technical components sit under the casing or in lines of code, and the creators sit in a building somewhere modelling diagrams and developing algorithms. When products do become profitable, they are slightly iterated on over and over again due to it’s proven viability. This makes sense when you think about it—companies don’t want to radically change something that is selling well. Keep in mind that it is this same ‘innovation aversion’ that causes products and sometimes whole companies to go obsolete. Iteration and innovation all have their place in a company at certain times (arguably both in parallel). We’ll discuss this in another article.

Great Experiences Lead to Viral Referrals

Great experiences beg to be talked about. People are very quick to share their stories of a new restaurant, movie, or product because humans desperately want to be the bearer of new information. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. A human who has new information about an environment, person, or resource is more valuable to the community. Thousands of years ago, if you could traverse some difficult land to find new sources of sustenance (food and water) and live to tell the story, imagine how much you are celebrated by the tribe? Very much so, because you are increasing the fitness of everyone around you. Thus, it is absolutely in our DNA to try new things (explore) and report on them. I’ve coined this term ‘material gossip’, which is just the process of referring a product or service to other humans. Simply put, referrals are the most important metric/indicator of a successful business, because it proves that what you are selling is actually remarkable. A business simply can not sustain without referrals.

Cavemen who could find value/danger, and communicate it would be much more valuable to the pack. We evolved to talk about experiences.

Why Referrals are the Lifeblood of Business

Nobody likes being sold to. It’s a creepy feeling when someone is breathing down your neck, disingenuously pushing you for the sake of commission. This exposure to bad ‘selling’ has meant our ‘scumbag sales detector’ has gotten better over time. We change the channel when commercials play, skip Youtube ads, and mark newsletters as spam once they become too persistent. Overt marketing and sales become transparent, and this is a big turn-off to consumers. People adapt to understand the ploys companies use to influence them, leading to distrust in the company or brand.

Referrals, on the other hand, are trusted recommendations from friends and families that have no ulterior motive. Nobody makes money or rewards by telling people about the new recipe app they downloaded—no, they share with their friends and colleagues for the sake of expression. People trust their friends. Thus, when you have a great product or service, it truly spreads like wildfire due to these trusted recommendations which cost zero dollars to ‘sell’ and ‘market’. People pay it forward, it that leads to real growth.

Great Experiences Last

By creating better products and experiences by ruthlessly analyzing, conceptualizing, and testing, you can create amazing things that transcend time and spread virally. Great experiences — ones that are focused, visceral, and memorable—explode in the market and last because they don’t require constant feature upgrades. Look at the Vespa scooter. Its’ design has stayed relatively the same over multiple decades—they got it right the first time. Although it has become faster, safer, and more efficient, they didn’t have to continue restyling and modifying the user experience because of its inherent greatness. They nailed it the first time around. The iPhone is another example. Even having existed for over a decade, the general functionality, shape, size, and UX/UI is very similar to the original, and that’s a good thing. Imagine if every smartphone had a completely different interface for every product upgrade—it would require so much unnecessary learning. Have you noticed how frustrating it can be to use someone’s iPhone when you’re an Android person or vice versa? Good product design transcends time, making it much easier for the company and customer to keep producing and using it. Both inventive and iterative design is good for companies depending on the context.


A massage parlour can have great advertising, an impeccable studio with beautiful decor and a friendly receptionist, but unless they are giving good massages, they won’t succeed. Their retention will be poor, thus required to constantly advertise and market to keep their business afloat. Businesses should never have to constantly advertise—it’s a sign of a bad product and unhealthy business. This is obvious with services like Blue Apron, which spent $140 million on advertising in 2016, almost $100 million more than the previous year. No seasoned product or service should have to do that, and this is ultimately caused by poor retention. Unhealthy businesses need to keep feeding the unprofitable monster, but in the end, the model won’t last.

The two golden metrics of success in business are retention (repeat business by the same customer) and referrals because it reflects exactly how valuable your offering is. If the service isn’t good, people just won’t return or share their positive stories. Keep in mind this happens with bad experiences as well. If a service was particularly bad, those individuals will without a doubt report it to their friends and the internet at large. Awful experiences go viral too. This is both bad and good news for companies. For example, if a customer is clearly irate when talking on the phone—you can easily mitigate that negative response by softening the blow and provide something else in return. Always end experience positively, because humans largely judge an experience by its beginning and end (see primacy and recency effect).

To conclude, if your business isn’t getting the kind of traction needed to sustain itself—don’t necessarily blame your HR, sales, or marketing—look at your experience. If people aren’t talking about it, you’re going gonna have a tough time keeping afloat.


I help companies convert, retain, and refer more users. For free UX and business strategy lessons, visit my site.


The Startup

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Jeff Davidson

Written by

I help companies convert and retain more users · Get free design + strategy lessons on my site ··· > http://jeffdavidsondesign.com/

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +539K people. Follow to join our community.

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