As we embark upon the adventure that is 2010 we arguably leave behind us the worst of the recent economic downturn.  As far as economic downturns go, this one was a bit of an anomaly.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this downturn (or recession if you want to be technical) is that it was, at least in the United States, the worst recession since the 1930s.  This designation was earned due to sheer length of the recession and its subsequent economic impact.

The tricky thing about recessions is that we don’t know that they’re over until they’ve been done for quite a while.  There has been no official, definitive declaration that the recession is indeed over, but many signs to point to just that.

So the question is what does good design have to do with this knock-em-down drag-em-out recession that we just had?  What lessons are in it for us?  

One thing that is undeniable is that in hard economic times consumers, whether they be businesses or individuals, are more careful about how they spend their money.  When things are tight we want to make sure that the goods and services that we purchase have the highest possible value for price ratio.

Surprisingly that doesn’t mean that consumers flock towards the cheapest products, more and more consumers are looking for the products that offer the best value.

While the definition of best value will change from situation to situation let’s focus on a couple of examples.

1) Apple has reported record sales, revue and profit for each fiscal quarter of 2009 culminating with Q4 2009, their most profitable quarter ever.

2) Audi had record-breaking vehicle sales and revenue for 2008, and still managed to turn a healthy profit (estimates say over $1.52 billion) in 2009, while many other car companies were mired in thick of the global recession

Add to the list Google, Starbucks, Mattel and a host of other companies that did well over the last year and we begin to realize that all companies are not suffering.

These are companies with strong brands, strong design sense and constant willingness to innovate.

In a time when money is tight, resources are scarce and there is a fierce competition for customer dollars it is critical for companies to listen to their users.  It is just as important for companies to be able to effectively turn the feedback that they receive from those users into focused actionable goals and use that information to design a better product, a better service or a better web offering.

By treating the design of your website, web app or service the same way in which Audi or Apple treat the design of their physical products, you are taking steps towards ensuring that your product is valuable and useful to your target audience.

This sense of value evidenced by good design and attention to user feedback is often the differentiator that is needed to put your company on top.

Even in the midst of a recession price is not always the defining factor when making a decision to purchase.  No one would argue that people buy Audis and Macs because they are the cheapest options on the market.  These are companies however that are well known for their channels of user feedback and their almost uncanny ability to give users exactly what they need.

The challenge for those of us in the SMB space is to follow suit by creating the processes that will allow us to keep our finger on the pulse of our target audience and design our products in such a way as to meet their needs.

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