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From vibrators to office chairs, Yves Béhar designs for the customer experience

Yves Béhar knows a thing about innovation and design. He’s the “elegant engineering” of the Herman Miller Sayl chair, and the visionary behind the deceptively simple Jawbone Jambox. He brought his “experience of sleepless nights” to the Snoo Crib, a robotic bassinet that rocks babies to sleep, and once collaborated with Jimmyjane on a line of waterproof rechargeable vibrators. Even his San Francisco house is a design marvel—considered both “maximally minimal” and the “house as experiment”—every hidden TV and swiveling trapdoor designed by Béhar.

When Zendesk recently celebrated their rebrand, they called on Béhar to talk about the importance of design and business relationships. It turns out Béhar knows a thing or two about designing customer experiences as well.

Why is it important for designers to have empathy?

Empathy is important in order for designers to understand human needs, and then to transcend those needs with design. Empathy can sometimes lead to compromised results, but to me it’s a learning and insight that we, as designers, can push to find a surprising solution.

How do you empathize with users while you design a new product?

Put yourself in the position to learn. We get brought into industries where we aren’t the specialists. Spend time with the users, learn from them,

We conduct research on five continents, traveling the globe to understand every facet of how someone envisions using the product. That’s the important part; to understand how the person sees themselves using the product in the future. It’s easy to see the use now but meeting the unmet future desires of a user is the role of a designer.

How do you put yourself in the customer’s or user’s shoes when designing something for future generations?

Approach technology in a way that isn’t looking for an outcome or use, but rather as a tool to help someone. A lot of products are built in engineering labs; but if you start with the human need first, you might find that you don’t need as much technology or that you need to develop new technologies. Don’t use the technology at hand to drive your design, use human need as your inspiration.

Approach technology in a way that isn’t looking for an outcome or use, but rather as a tool to help someone.

Lately in the U.S. materialism has become a dirty word

Hasn’t it always been a dirty word? [laughs]

Yes, but we’ve still been inclined to consume and consume.

But there are good ways to consume products.

Exactly! There is a concept of good materialism that says people can have healthy, happy, relationships with things that they purchase with intention. Things that add meaning to their life story. How do you think good product design adds value to people’s lives?

When it gives people the opportunity to discover new experiences, Looking at Jambox for example, it gives people the ability to share the music in a new environment. We hear so many stories of women playing music with their Jambox when delivering babies or people proposing with the Jambox. They get to take songs they care about and experience them in new ways. Products that enhance experiences in people’s lives end up becoming the technology that is longest lasting.

What is the power of design in societal change?

Design accelerates the adoption of new ideas. These ideas will remain invisible unless they are designed in a way that people want. Take electric cars for example; no one wanted them until Tesla designed them in a way that was appealing. There are many important ideas in the 21st century that can gain more visibility through design: sustainability, universal access to technology, entrepreneurship in the developing world, etc. There are many ways to change people’s minds, and design is a powerful way to do that by addressing their human needs.

Behar urges brands to design with intention, focus on the human experience, inspire, and look to accelerate change. And don’t fear exploration. For the Herman Miller chair, Behar made over 70 prototypes, “each one uglier than the last,” as he puts it. But with each iteration, he discovered new ways to use the material, and better ways to fulfill the needs of the customer.

Chelsea Larsson is a content marketer for Zendesk and a frequent contributor to Relate. She believes any problem can be solved with a pen, paper, and Pimm's cup. Find her on Twitter: @ChelseaLarsson.