Thinking of people with disabilities as an attractive market segment, as drivers of innovation, as a mindset that is the key to unlocking future growth, is not the type of thing you often hear in halls of the corporate world today. But Rich Donovan, CEO of The Return On Disability Group, is on a mission to help both private and public sector organizations think very differently about disability. In his latest book, Unleash Different, Rich shares his personal journey as a person with a disability and the epiphany he had as business professional obsessed with value creation.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Rich to speak to him specifically about the role brand and design can play in Unleashing Different and creating outsized value for companies today.
DL: How did you first make the connection between brand, design, innovation and people with disabilities?
RD: What began as practical conversations amongst professionals with disabilities about how to navigate the corporate recruiting process quickly morphed into shared experiences as consumers with disabilities – almost in a kibitzing fashion “You show me your CX failure, and I’ll show you mine.” Our team began to realize there was a common “identity” loosely manifested in a “struggle” to adapt to a world not built for 26% of GenPop’s functional realities. 1.7 billion consumers carry this identity with them every day. Embedded in that identity is a common set of needs that define a market.
When we dive into these demands, we discover a set of experience drivers (functional factors) that are similar the typical consumers, yet can be amplified, often to extremes. While adapting to designs that do not meet their needs – because they have to – people with disabilities are forced to create hacks to make their way through the world. When we harness that natural ability to adapt to drive factors like ease-of-use, we add value to the typical customer experience as well. The translation of extreme to typical that results in delight for all is when outsized return on investment is generated.
Telling this story – in a way that embodies a specific brand – resonates with many markets. The empty promise of blanket “inclusion” is yawn inducing. Embedding these responses to demand in brand architecture is far more powerful – simply because it is an authentic response to a customer need. Consumer response to product, messaging, packaging and experience design for functional needs has blown away the typical “Diversity and Inclusion” pablum.
DL: What’s an example of how brands are “unleashing different”, as it relates to people with disabilities, in ways that are delivering measurable value?
RD: It starts with direct customer input and ends with an experience that delights. The LargeCap technology firms are great at this – Google and Apple in particular. They study how customers at the “fringes” – once considered “outliers” – find their way to the same goal as core customers via a very different path. They design these alternative paths as features in new product innovation. Siri was adapted for an “alternate path” of interacting with an iPhone without hands or the need for fine motor skills. Waymo (Alphabet/Google automated vehicle company) leveraged customers with vision issues to design an automated car. Yes – the sensor/data tech is cool – but the driving algorithm in this context is secondary to the experience design of the interior and systems that delight the user from start to finish. If design ignites a “struggle” to tell the car where you want it to go, with the right tunes and the top down as you fly past Big Sur, you’ve missed delight.
We measure value in two ways: A delighted customer and revenue growth. My favorite design shift example is the Maxwell House instant coffee packaging re-boot. Maxwell House customers skewed older. They were complaining about dropping glass packs and having difficulty managing bulky tins that were hard to open. In 2001, they switched from tin cans and glass bottles to big plastic tubs. The new packs had handles, wide openings with easy to use scoops and a top that was easy to open/close. Happy customer, yes. But the real magic was that the customer was willing to pay more for the higher utility. Pricing power – on a commodity. It is my favorite example because Kraft disclosed the financial results in the notes of the 2001 Annual Report. Revenue growth from Volume/Price mix doubled. Profit growth tripled. Coffee prices were up 4% that year.
DL: What’s the most common mistake you see brands making in relation to people with disabilities and their friends and families? What aren’t they getting?
RD: Compliance with government regulations make for a terrible CX strategy. Firms that do act in disability markets – roughly 25% of the largest North American companies exhibit action – typically use regulation as a “plan”. Legal says we must do these things. In our analysis, 94% of firms that do act, act on regulation. This is a recipe for CX failure and destroyed value.
The prevailing mindset is not a demand and delight mindset. It is an “I don’t want to get sued” mindset. Generally, the conversation happens at the end of the design process, where Legal performs its “risk assessment”, forcing “tweaks”. Ironically, the “legal tweaks” usually degrade the overall design, even for customers with disabilities.
The overwhelming majority of design and marketing teams are missing a natural innovation platform that can be leveraged to delight all customers. Perhaps more importantly, they are missing a market that directly touches 63% of all consumers with $11.2 trillion in annual disposable income. The Anti-Niche.
DL: Is there any industry or sector in particular that you believe is primed for immediate gains through a more proactive focus on disability?
CPG companies and their retail customers have the most relevant opportunity in disability markets. They touch this consumer every day, either in stores, in homes or somewhere in between. Understanding how different functionality improves experience – and reduces risk – acts as a growth platform for the few firms acting today. How does ease-of-use impact product development? Are we transmitting key information that impacts buying decisions in the simplest and most impactful way? Can my customers read/see what I most want them to know? Are there holes in my service models leading to unintended CX failures?
Simple questions that rarely get asked, much less answered.
DL: What advice would you give to a brand looking to target the disability market? How do they get started? Are there particular steps they should take?
RD: Start with customer demand. Always. Identify what customers need, relative to their unique functionality and in the context of a specific experience. An identical vision issue has a different impact on experience when finding a box of chocolates, buying that same box of chocolates and scarfing them down. Get into that experience in a granular way so that you understand how the functional “difference” impacts experience in ways that one can produce at scale to delight all customers. Those insights will change the way you design forever – simply because you will delight more customers and make more money.