Customer Experience Q&A With John Maeda, Design Demigod

Okay, maybe “demigod” is a little over the top. But maybe not.

John Maeda is both design partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and chair of the eBay Design Advisory Board, where he collaborates with design leaders across eBay to disseminate design thinking. But that’s just what he’s doing now. He previously served as the president of Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), and before that, he was a professor and head of research at the MIT Media Lab.

Now where I come from (Cambridge, Massachusetts, these days), RISD and the Media Lab are synonymous with innovative thinking. But eBay already changed the way about 145 million people shop — most people would say that’s already pretty innovative. So how do you improve innovation by disseminating design thinking at eBay?

We wanted to hear John’s thoughts on that topic — and others — so we invited him to speak at Forrester’s Forum For Customer Experience Professionals East, 2014. Attendees can hear him talk on Wednesday, June 25th, at the Hilton New York.

In advance of John’s talk, he was kind enough to answer some of our questions about what he’s been doing and why. I hope you enjoy John’s responses, and I look forward to seeing many of you in New York on June 24th and 25th!

Q: When did your company first begin focusing on customer experience? Why?

A: eBay’s journey to great customer experience was already underway when I joined in an advisory capacity in January of this year. Under the direction of eBay’s CEO John Donahoe, I began collaborating with design leaders across eBay Inc. — which includes eBay Marketplaces, PayPal, eBay Enterprise StubHub, Braintree, and others — to establish a stronger community of design and innovation across the company and to disseminate design thinking into the fabric of the organization.

To that end, eBay’s chief product officers, including Marketplaces’ RJ Pittman, PayPal’s Hill Ferguson, and eBay Enterprise’s Mark Lavelle, have adopted a design-focused philosophy to product development. 

Said Pittman during a fireside chat at this year’s Wired Business Conference, “John Donahoe and [eBay Marketplaces president] Devin Wenig are really serious about bringing design thinking and product thinking to the forefront of eBay. They have built and reenergized the franchise in a phenomenal way over the past five years, and the next step in that is to start really introducing the customer experience, the design experience to eBay to unlock a tremendous amount on potential that’s sitting in that marketplace today.”

Q: What aspects of the experience that your company delivers matter most to your customers?

A: Today’s digital consumer expects an omnichannel experience. In each of eBay Inc.’s critically important four commerce battlegrounds — mobile, local, data, and global — it’s about making that experience virtually seamless, convenient, and enjoyable.

On the Marketplaces side of the business, eBay’s job is to figure out how to simplify the shopping experience. eBay Marketplaces has 145 million users and 650 million items for sale, coming from a broad spectrum of sellers. It’s a unique challenge to make an ecosystem like that rational, sensible, and delightful.

eBay has experienced huge growth on mobile, with $35 billion of total mobile-enabled commerce volume in 2013, up 88% from 2012. The future of shopping is your mobile device, and it’s with you 24/7.

There are also lots of interesting intersections between local retailing in the physical world and online. Consumers expect the products they want to be available when they want them. eBay Enterprise, for example, enables brands and retailers of all sizes to deliver consistent consumer experiences across all touchpoints throughout the entire purchase. Customers have more options to get their products anytime, anywhere, while allowing retailers to utilize their entire inventory more efficiently.

Q: What if anything is different about what you're doing now to improve customer experience versus what you did when you were starting out? Why did you change?

A: All of the eBay Inc. brands are now working cross-functionally to integrate the customer-centric, systems-based, problem-solving methods that are the hallmark of design thinking.

Great customer experience comes from strong collaboration between design, product, and technology — by each group aligning around putting the customer at the center. We are in a period of immense change in how people shop and pay; all companies large and small must build great experiences that customers love to ensure success.

eBay Inc. is often thought of as a technology, shopping, or payments leader (not necessarily a leader in design). This is rapidly changing. The company is building a long-term strategic playbook to bring design thinking and customer experience to the forefront of how we build products for consumers, retail clients, and the design community.

Q: Where do you think your industry will be with regards to customer experience quality in five years?

A: What is now clear in the consumer technology space is that we instinctively know that we don’t need more storage or speed because we don’t have any real use for it. In absence of the normal cues of “better,” which used to be as simple as knowing the CPU’s clock speed, or how much RAM it has, or how big a screen to pair with it, we now are choosing based upon something else: design. Because more computing power no longer makes technology feel better — in fact, the pile-on of new features that Moore’s Law has enabled makes us feel confused. And in this new universe, we have come to count on design to cut through the clutter and make things feel better. In the past couple of years, we have seen increasing consensus around this point, so it will be interesting to see where that takes us.

In the Commerce space specifically, there is the constant tension between inspiration and “browsability” versus utility. The redesign of the Marketplace home page with a focus on personalization and discovery as well as the new Collections, which allow for expert and user-curated content, show how eBay is increasingly trying to inspire its users, even when they aren’t shopping for a specific item. They are also putting the customer at the center of their full portfolio, from an enterprise business approach that delivers end-to-end shopping experiences in-store and online, a global marketplace with more than half a billion listings, and a ubiquitous payments network. For a company of its size with many different brands and customers, it’s a knotty challenge. But design thinking and customer centricity is beginning to unite a complex set of businesses around a singular focus point and methodology. 

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