Design power

How DNA helped turn an IT breakthrough into a consumer hit.

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Photograph by Mike Heydon

How DNA helped turn an IT breakthrough into a consumer hit

It’s easy to consign the work of designers to the end of the innovation process. That’s if you think design is all about brochures and logos.

Design company DNA does its best work at the beginning, immersing itself in client problems and puzzling over ways that new ideas could work.

So when online power retailer Powershop first approached DNA, it wasn’t to talk about a logo or typefaces. It was about how to turn a geeky idea into a consumer reality.

Powershop’s idea was to sell electricity through the Internet, allowing users to monitor their own energy use on a daily, or even hourly, basis. The application needed to be simple and give consumers a choice of providers at the click of mouse. It would be like iTunes—a simple online selection and transaction.

Proven market

By this stage of the innovation process, Powershop had already proven the need. “With power, you don’t know how much you’ve used until you’re billed for it,” says Powershop co-founder Simon Coley, an unlikely electricity industry executive with a background in advertising and design. “But if you can see on a daily basis that your consumption is going up, you may want to make some changes to your use to avoid that huge bill.”

It had also proven the technology. With software developer YouDo, Powershop came up with an ‘engine’ to track consumers’ energy consumption, bill them and give them the ability to manage their account by choosing from range of electrcity ‘products’ and payment preferences.

What Powershop had yet to crack was a way of turning all this geeky IT stuff into something easy for the ordinary mum or dad; to be fun, easy and fast. It really needed its product to be designed—not engineered.

Design not engineering

Enter DNA’s online strategy director, Hayden Vink. “It really was an interesting time, a very intense time, in the early days of development,” he says of the engagement, which lasted many months.

DNA helped develop a calendar showing roughly how many days customers have either paid for or will be charged for. If it sounds simple, it was the product of numerous ideas—a battery showing juice remaining, an odometer showing speed and so on—that were explored but allowed to fall by the wayside as DNA tested the idea on real punters and trialled it internally.

“What people need when something is revolutionary is actually a sense of the familiar; ease of use that allows them to say ‘I get this’. That is critical in user interface design,” Vink says.

DNA’s speciality is taking a customer’s radical product or service idea and interpreting it in a way that entices people to experience it. The new idea will often be better than existing similar ones, but the best way of giving it life might be to borrow from old ideas.

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Brand matters

DNA is not only a usability specialist; at the core of DNA’s offering is a commitment to developing a coherent brand. So how does usability mesh with brand development? “It’s the experience people have with the product or company that ultimately builds your brand. What are those things people interact with—staff, a webbased application, a product or a service—and how might they be different to create the desired outcome?”

How is the brand working then for Powershop? With customer uptake climbing, Coley is happy DNA found the right answer to that question.

“We had a lot of [electricity] industry expertise in the team and one of the challenges was simplifying what we thought we could do into something that actually made sense for people.

“I think the final user experience of the application is testament to having successfully boiled the offering down to the essentials—showing customers how much power’s in their account, how much they need and how they can buy more at the price that suits them.

“DNA did a great job for us.”

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