A shift in strategy pursued by company

May 5, 2009
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In today’s economy, layoffs happen. Recently, People Design, a Grand Rapids-based design and marketing firm, had to let three employees go. The economy was a factor, but the underlying force is the direction in which the custom Web site industry is heading.

“Some of the kinds of Web projects we used to do are not as in demand,” said Kevin Budelmann, president of People Design. “But I don’t think it’s a matter of what we are or are not doing. I think it’s a matter of the actual landscape changing.”

Budelmann said Web 2.0 has been a main driver in the changed landscape of Web design terrain. He described Web 2.0 as a change in the way people use the Internet, much of which can be attributed to search engine marketing and social networking sites. Budelmann noted that many companies are choosing to use free or cheap platforms such as Facebook and Ning for their online presence rather than custom Web sites.

“Especially with the economic crunch, there’s less of a demand for building things from the ground up,” he said. “In some respects, the nature of some of that work is changing. The cost for building a small custom Web site is prohibitive now and not really necessary. You can build a very nice Web site on a blog platform, and some best-of-breed blogging platforms are free. For a small to mid-sized business, it’s about the best content management tool you can buy — well, not buy.

“We’ve seen a decrease in some of the kinds of Web sites we used to build and an increase in some of the types of Web work that I think is going to be part of our future.”

That future includes much more research for People Design. Called “empathy research,” it’s the first of three steps the company takes when assisting customers with their brand.

“This research area has also become of great interest to a lot of our clients. From our perspective, it’s another way to look at brand development. You can only go so far with a new logo, tagline and billboard. It’s more about trying to dig a little deeper into customer needs and how people can be better served.”

People Design has been doing “empathy” research for several years, but formally introduced the service to clients only recently. The research infuses statistical information with human behavior and interaction with a certain company, product and industry.

“There’s a lot out there that has to do with understanding how people behave that is increasingly of interest to most businesses. It’s one of the big differentiators in whether a product or a service hits a home run or not,” said Budelmann. “Companies so often can be driven by all kinds of internal decisions, finances and a plan that was made three years ago. We try to understand user preferences, behaviors, patterns.”

Budelmann acknowledges the long and deep-rooted history of market research, especially when it comes to demographics and user behaviors on a quantitative level. He also noted, however, that this somewhat new category of research leans a bit more on the qualitative side, narrowing the research user by user.

“A conversation with a potential customer will only elicit what they overtly understand about their needs. The biggest breakthrough with products and services is solving a problem you didn’t know you had,” he said.

The next two steps in People Design’s “engagement framework” are strategy and realization. The steps involve planning and implementing a business strategy built off that initial base of research.

“Now, content management is a snap, so suddenly that’s not the holy grail that it was,” said Budelmann.

“This is the kind of transition we’ve seen before. I’ve been doing Web space for a dozen years and so I’ve gone through two or three pretty major shifts, and I think we’re in the middle of another one.”

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