Tim Kobe on designing experience

/ EdgeProp Singapore
March 15, 2019 9:00 AM SGT
SINGAPORE (EDGEPROP) - When Tim Kobe and his Taiwanese business partner started their own architecture and design firm in 1989, the duo decided to name their business KobeOu Associates, an amalgamation of both their surnames.
“It was a very bad decision,” Kobe tells EdgeProp Singapore. “No one could pronounce my name, or her name, and when we put them together, it was even worse.”
This year marks Kobe's 30th year with Eight Inc, which he founded in 1989 (Credit: Samuel Issac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
It wasn’t until the devastating Kobe earthquake in Japan – also called the Great Hanshin Earthquake – in 1995 that the name “Kobe” was brought to global attention. However, Kobe and Ou knew they had to come up with a new name for their company.
Ou suggested the number 8, which according to her, stood for good luck. Kobe likes the infinity symbol: “I like the symmetry and balance, and it would be great to have a name that people can remember.”
After incorporating Eight Inc in 1996, the company was hired by Steve Jobs CEO and co-founder of Apple work on the company's events. Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group which controls more than 400 companies, also engaged Eight Inc to design Virgin Atlantic’s airport lounges.
For most of the 1990s, Apple computers were sold through authorised retailers and chain stores, recounts Kobe. He wrote a white paper for Apple on why the company should have its own retail concept. That led to the advent of Apple Stores, a partnership with Apple that has spanned more than 20 years.

Apple store debut

The first two Apple Stores debuted in May 2001 in the US – in Glendale, California, and McLean, Virginia. The stores featured clean lines and hardwood floors and featured demo models of Apple’s iMac computers then, such as the iBook, Powerbook G4 and Power Macs. They also had music, movie, photo and children’s sections. It was an interactive store, where customers could play with the computers, make a movie or burn a CD in store.
The original incarnation of the Genius Bar – a tech support station within the Apple Store – was introduced then. If the in-store “geniuses” were unable to answer a customer query, they would connect them to an expert at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, California.
“The idea behind all the stores is to reflect the qualities that Apple represents: openness, accessibility and ease of use,” says Kobe.
Initially, the concept was met with scathing criticism. Retail consultant David A Goldstein publicly said: “I give them two years before they’re turning out the lights on a very painful and expensive mistake.”
Fast forward to the present day and Apple has gained cult status among technology aficionados. It has more than 500 retail stores across 24 countries around the world.

Distinction is key

Now, Kobe is constantly receiving requests from potential clients to design the exact retail experience for their businesses. However, he believes that companies need to realise what makes them distinctive as opposed to just adopting the same model as Apple.
Some companies may be making a unique and very valuable product, but they are presenting it in the same way as everybody else, notes Kobe. “Everybody who copies the Apple Store doesn’t realise that they are making Apple the default leader by making themselves the follower,” he adds. “Strategically, it’s ridiculous.”
Instead, Kobe recommends that businesses focus on building their brand as well as the values associated with it. He emphasises that commercial success is ultimately about forging a relationship between a business and its customers.
Xiaomi's flagship store in Shenzhen, China (Credit: Eight Inc)
For instance, at Xiaomi’s flagship store in Shenzhen, China, Eight Inc has designed interactive displays, mobile assist and self-checkout services. “What we did with Xiaomi is we created a store with an unlimited inventory,” he says. “The idea is we just placed some of the products there with a QR code, and it listed the features, the price and a click-to-buy option.” This way, customers have the option to either collect the product in store or have it delivered to their preferred locations so a purchase is not limited to an over-the-counter transaction.
He warns that brick-and-mortar businesses will have a “huge deficit in the future” if they fail to be technologically enabled. “But if you have a way of integrating your customer interaction physically and digitally as well as simultaneously, you have extraordinary value,” he explains.
In Singapore, as with most countries, Kobe observes that the idea of what retail constitutes is evolving at a “rate of change [that] is outpacing actual change”. In the past, businesses could contend with just pricing their products and services attractively. However, the conversation has moved beyond that and companies will lose their competitive edge if they fail to engage meaningfully with their customers, he says.

Customer loyalty

Engaging with customers extends beyond closing a transaction or the design of a physical store. “If you think about the end-user as the solution, and come up with something that they’re happier with, they [would then] become advocates for your work [and] for the company,” says Kobe.
Brands should always seek to inspire “irrational loyalty”, adds Kobe. It is the guiding principle behind Eight Inc’s projects and is particularly evident in the company’s involvement in the Acure vending machine project of the Japanese beverage company, JR East Water Business.
In Japan, Acure which is a modern spin on the traditional vending machine, provides product recommendations to customers (Credit: Eight Inc)
To connect with customers, Eight Inc designed the Acure vending machine with a sleek interior that features a 47-inch touchscreen and camera that is able to make recommendations to customers and collect sales information for the company. Since the first machine was installed in Tokyo’s Shinagawa station in 2011, the machine has achieved twice the number of sales as any vending machine at the same station.
During the Fukushima Earthquake in 2011, there was a power outage at Tokyo’s train stations, trains stopped running and passengers were stranded. The Acure vending machines, however, continued to operate as they came with a built-in battery pack. “If the power is off, what happens is that the battery turns on and a text will appear on the screen which says, ‘If you need a drink, take one.’ So you touch it and it gives you your free drink,” says Kobe.
The best way to create irrational loyalty is “to help people when they need help”, he says. “If you have this opportunity, why won’t you give people a drink if they are in an emergency? Over 50 units of the vending machines at train stations got to work when Fukushima [earthquake] struck. That sent a message to people that the company cares.”
Located at Singapore Sports Hub, Shimano Cycling World is about creating a community for cyclists (Credit: Samuel Issac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
In Singapore, Japanese bicycle manufacturer Shimano appointed Eight Inc to create a community for cyclists. That led to Shimano Cycling World at the Singapore Sports Hub. No actual transaction takes place on the premises. Instead, the space was conceived as a hub for cycling enthusiasts, and visitors may enter and browse through cycling magazines, learn about different bicycles and bicycle parts through the exhibits, plan a cycling trip with interactive maps or attend a spinning class. “It's an experience centre here, and hopefully [visitors] will remember something about Shimano,” says Kobe.
“There used to be a kid who came in every day after school, and he was a sort of self-appointed docent,” recounts Kobe. “He knew all the stuff, and he was reading a lot on cycling, and every time people came in, he would say, ‘Hey, you want to see how the gear-shifting works? Come over here I’ll show you how!’” That was how the cycling community grew organically.
Eight Inc was also involved in Singtel’s FutureNow Innovation Centre (FIC) which was launched in August last year. The centre was designed to enable the telco to engage with customers and shift the conversation from a sales transaction to positing the company as a trusted technology provider and partner.
Singtel FutureNow was designed to help the telco engage with customers in meaningful dialogue (Credit: Samuel Issac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)

Experience architects

Apart from redesigning its physical space, Kobe advocates that businesses should also align its communications, services (including customer service) and products in order to achieve overall improvement in user experience and business results. “If a company redesigned a store but still had inadequate staffing by employees who were unhappy in their job, the novelty factor of the new design will quickly wear off because the underlying experience doesn’t change,” he says.
While Eight Inc is still involved in designing Apple Stores, Kobe himself stopped working on them since Jobs’ passing in October 2011. “We worked with him basically every week for 12 years until he was too sick to come into the office,” relates Kobe. “We got to know him for that many years, not only on a professional level but also on a personal level.”
He credits Jobs for validating Eight Inc’s approach towards design. “His approach to design being a hybrid of art and science was very much in line with our belief,” he says.
The Nissan Crossing Experience Center in Ginza, Tokyo, showcases the driving experience to customers (Credit: Eight Inc)
Eight Inc has design studios in 11 locations including New York, San Francisco, Shanghai, Singapore and Tokyo. Kobe says he prefers to keep each team lean, with each studio having a headcount of no more than 30 people. In Asia, Eight Inc has seen an increase in demand for its services. Its clients in the region include Philippines’ telco Globe Telecom, Japan’s Nissan and Citibank in Singapore.
His rationale is that with smaller teams, everyone will have the opportunity to engage in good projects and “consistently produce quality work”. This ultimately makes work “more valuable” and “more meaningful” for the team.
One of the ways Eight Inc makes money is by investing in the companies it does work for. “When a company begins focusing on this type of design, it is likely to be on a growth trajectory,” says Kobe. “We’ve made more money investing in a company’s stock when they hire us than in fees.”
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