Jul 2023
5 Min Read
Jamie Gadette

The Upsides of Downturns

Embrace the hard things

Remember Flooz.com? Not many people do. The short-lived digital currency failed when the dot com bubble burst. Meanwhile, Flooz contemporaries eBay, Priceline, and Amazon faced the same troubled economy only to emerge stronger than ever. Now they’re household names while Flooz is a footnote to conversations about Bitcoin. There’s no single reason why Flooz flopped. Same goes for Pets.com and eToys, which were also rising stars in the late 90s. One thing is certain — they didn’t take the sort of risks that reimagined Amazon, which reinvested its revenue to expand its customer base and retail offerings.

Today, we’re dealing with another period of economic turmoil. Tech companies are being hit particularly hard, with most seeing their stocks tumble by 40–50%. Given the numbers, it’s tempting to lean into the basics and press pause on ambitious initiatives. But short-sighted prudence can backfire.

“There are new people who are hungry to work hard and take advantage of this downturn,” says O/M partner and CXO, Ben Meszaros. “If you can be sprinting right now while others are waiting, you can get way farther ahead.”

That doesn’t mean you should move fast and break things. There’s a happy medium between remaining stagnant and racing recklessly into the unknown. By making strategic investments in product design, you can establish a strong foundation in key areas of your business that will not only kickstart progress but help you maintain momentum post-recession.

Here are three main areas of opportunity to help you leapfrog the competition:

Know your audience

User research is usually one of the first things to go during budget cuts. Companies will sacrifice conversations with customers to save money, relying on lagging indicators to determine whether anyone wants or needs their product. Many of the companies that thrived during the dot com bust and the 2008 recession did just the opposite.

By validating features before you design and ship, you can deliver innovative solutions no one has previously offered, and fill a precious void in the market.

Consider the whole wave of products that didn’t exist prior to the 2008 recession:

Airbnb, Slack, Venmo, Square, Instagram, WhatsApp … They all took advantage of new technologies and advancements in design, and invested heavily in user experience. They did so when things were looking extremely grim, arguably worse than our current crisis. It was doom and gloom for a long period. Now they’re the dominant players in their respective spaces.

“Downturns show what human problems really matter to people,” says Meszaros. “They’re hyper aware of what they would pay for and there’s a lot of opportunity to provide unique solutions. [In 2008], people needed a way to make more money and Airbnb said, ‘What if they can rent out their homes?’ The company solved a problem and upended the hotel industry in the process. Communication was getting difficult and email was showing cracks and Slack said, ‘Cool, that’s a huge pain point and we can help with that.’”

Now people are trying to figure out what work means to their lives and how they can participate in the economy without sacrificing what’s most important to them outside of “the office.” There’s still plenty of gray space for tools that help individuals strike that balance.

Focus on form

Back in the early 2000s, the web wasn’t sophisticated enough to support the type of creative UX explorations that drive business innovation. By 2008, companies could tap into more sophisticated tech stacks and smartphones to unlock new design potential and make a much bigger impact. In fact, to compete, companies definitely needed someone with design as their core competency.

Not only did these products solve problems in a way that hadn’t been done before, but they also introduced an elegant design sensibility. The first Instagram interface looks dated now, but when it launched, it was the easiest and most appealing way to post and view digital photos.

Many of the most successful companies grabbed headlines and earned customers by increasing focus on design while others dismissed its importance.

“People are taking stock of every last dollar they’re spending. They’re thinking, ‘I’m paying for too many things! These are the tools that are the most useful and easiest to use. I’m going to keep those and cut the rest of the bloat,’” says Meszaros, adding that O/M has engaged in the same Marie Kondo-style culling of productivity tools. “If you’re lagging and not investing in the right places, you’re going to be one of those products people put on the cutting room floor in order to simplify their life and finances.”

Prioritize excluded communities

Focusing on accessibility and inclusive design is the easiest way to ensure that your product is the most useful to the greatest number of people.

“Kat Holmes talks about this in her book, Mismatch,” says Meszaros. “If you design for one and extend to many — one being the person with the most accessibility needs — you are going to come up with the solution that’s most useful for everyone.”

For example, in the 1970s, curbs were redesigned to allow people with accessibility needs to navigate cities more easily. Turns out, that was a better system for everyone.

Designing for inclusion makes your product better. It’s also great for your reputation.

People want to invest their dollars in companies that reflect their values and that don’t abandon those values when times get hard. Those are companies that not only survive hard economic times but also surpass the competition.

Take calculated risks

Once you know where to invest, decide who you’ll work with to maximize your investment. In a climate of rampant layoffs and hiring freezes, bringing on full-time, in-house talent can often be too much of a stretch. Agencies can be the stopgap between now and the future when the economy starts to settle.

“It’s part of our ethos that before we begin a client engagement, we need to be convinced, and the client needs to be convinced, that it’s the right thing to spend money on,” says Meszaros. “It’s our job to ensure we take the right risks at the right times.”

For example, O/M recently wrapped a project with NCX (formerly SilviaTerra), which helps create positive climate change impact by allowing land owners of any size to take advantage of an equitable carbon replacement program. The company did an initial design sprint with O/M before agreeing to a 12-week time frame focused on improving one vital section of their product. They wanted to make it easier for landowners to onboard much more easily and to be much more aware of the program’s value. O/M didn’t touch the rest of the experience. By focusing on one step of the process, they helped NCX grow their customer base and advance their mission to make a positive climate impact.

“We’re not going to be in this sort of economy forever,” says Meszaros. “You can be a couple of years in a recession-style economy making bad decisions and spend the next 10 years paying for it.”

“Accept and realize there’s opportunity in investing when your competitors aren’t. Ask yourself, can you invest in a singular engagement with an agency where costs are locked in, project scope is well defined, and the timeline is definite? The risk is high if you don’t keep investing. The payoff is high if you do.”