Skeuomorphism: The business model design disease

Does your business model suffer from skeuomorphism?

Business leaders tend to keep on eye on signs of success in other companies. Ostensibly this is to learn from, but honestly, it is often to copy successful strategies in the absence of original strategies.

There are many things wrong with this approach:

1. No two companies are the same (resources, abilities etc.)

2. The strategic context is always very different.

3. Business leaders, like the public, are seduced by the story without understanding the substance.

4. It is complex – if not impossible – to identify, articulate and translate the essence of the learning from a one company, environment and context to another.

Business plans are pretty useless, but designing the right business model is crucial to your success.

When we consider design we must also understand skeuomorphism.

Definition: A skeuomorph is a design element of a product that imitates design elements that were functionally necessary in the original product design, but which have become ornamental in the new design. (The word is now more commonly also being used beyond the constraints of physical design treatments only.)

Example: Artificial leather grain on items that traditionally used leather but now use plastics, such as car dashboards and books, or a floppy disk icon to represent the idea of ‘saving a digital file’ when there are no longer floppy disks around are examples

(I have only become aware of skeuomorphism in the last year or so – don’t let the lingo deter you.)

Read this great post on Skeuomorphic business models; even though it is about publishing specifically it offers great insights.

It vindicates my argument that replicating your current bricks-and-mortar retail business as an online channel is not a smart thing to do. It is a skeuomorphic error in designing your business model.

In order to explain the application, I will pick on the company du Jour - Apple and compare that to Spotify.

I am not a fan of Apple. I know you are – but don’t take it personally. Other than the cult-like pressure to like it because everybody likes it – social proof - and that they really do have well-designed products, I don’t like how their business model requires you to play exclusively in their walled garden. If most people were honest, the technology is not that great even if it is cool. I made this prediction in mid 2010. And there are now some worrying signs for Apple investors.)

Before Apple there was Microsoft and Intel. Before them there was IBM. Microsoft was a real innovator with a long list of failed products. In fact, Apple only exists because Bill Gates bailed them out.

I use Apple products too and there are many great things they have done that we can learn from. Strategically, as marketers and as innovators Apple is the bellwether company of the Tech Age.

The only problem is that the Tech Age has peaked.

Just like no one is trying to copy Microsoft’s business model or Intel’s strategies, you should get over your infatuation with Apple.

If there is a business model to emulate and learn from – given all the warnings above – it is Spotify. (If you don’t use the service – you really should try it, if you are not familiar with it, click on the link and check it out.)

Spotify have avoided skeuomorphic errors in designing their business model:

They have figured out a way to work with the status quo

They have created an opportunity to explore their product with no risk and no commitment (unlike Apple)

They live their Brand – they don’t talk it. Even the ads they run are ‘on target’ and sensitive to the context.

The commercial aspects are not creepy or intrusive (Hello Gmail, Hello Facebook.)

They offer the music the way we listen to it, not the way they can deliver it

It is social in its fabric, but you can easily and simply control exactly how social or how private you want it to be

It is offered at a price point that makes sense – for the price of ¼ of a CD per month you have unlimited music. (Compare this to iTunes - at $2 per download –it’s the same as the cost of a CD, and you never OWN that music and you are bound to listen to it on Apples platform and equipment. Everyone knows that it is a rip off. They won’t exist in 5 years unless they fundamentally change.

Avoiding a skeuomorphic error is easy once you are aware of what it is. A good start would be to reconsider any attempt to replicate your business model in the online world.

Just because it works the way it does in your bricks-and-mortar store, doesn’t mean it should be included in your eCommerce venture.

Dennis Price

Training, Technology & Tactics for the Retail Revolution

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